There's an app for that

Houston startup plans to expand services and footprint following $2 million seed round

Ben Johnson's business idea turned into a growing company making the lives of apartment dwellers easier. Courtesy of Apartment Butler

Ben Johnson thought consolidating resident services for household chores — like doing the dishes and walking the dog — could be done more efficiently. So, he created Houston-based Apartment Butler in 2016 to do just that.

"I started thinking a lot about apartment industry," Johnson, who is the founder and CEO, says. "I just saw the industry as a whole is one that hadn't been really disrupted yet — the technology was dated."

Johnson, who worked in oil and gas banking for seven years, was commuting to Chicago on the weekends to get his MBA at the University of Chicago at the time. He was surrounded by so many people starting different types of companies. The program pulled him out of the energy industry so that he could see how something like Apartment Butler could work.

Over two years later, Johnson is fresh off a $2 million seed fund raising round that closed August 31. Houston-based Mercury Fund lead the round and Austin-based Capital Factory participated. The money raised went into growing Apartment Butler's staff. In just five months, the team has tripled from four members to 12. The company is hiring a vice president of engineering who will be based in Austin, where the technical team will also grow.

Johnson talks about more growth plans — including a footprint expansion to two new markets and new services for its users — in this week's Featured Innovator interview.

InnovationMap: How did you come up with the idea for your company?

Ben Johnson: I came up with this idea of Apartment Butler because I lived in an apartment, and I had a puppy. I would drive home at lunch to let this puppy out. There were 10 different dog walkers in my apartment community, and it made no sense to me why 10 different people would drive to this apartment community every day to walk dogs. Why can't we just come together and combine out purchasing power as a group of people and get better prices in a more efficient way?

Apartment communities for years had been aggregating things like pest control or trash service and getting a better deal. But why for these resident-elected services there was no medium for residents to broker a deal for themselves.

Separately from this idea, I was fortunate enough to catch a shift in thinking in the apartment industry. Managers and developers for years had been spending more and more money on pools and fitness centers. It had been this arms race for amenities and had been starting to think about more than just those amenities.

IM: How did you get your start?

Johnson: We had three services to start: housekeeping, pet care and dry cleaning/wash and fold.

I really had no idea what I was getting into. I was starting a three-sided platform in a city that doesn't spit out a lot of tech companies — certainly not many with a consumer-facing component. It was just like blind arrogance that led me to do this in a non-target market for startups.

One benefit to being in Houston is that i found a robust network of high networth individuals in the real estate industry that were our first capital. We were able to raise $780,000 in our first angel round in 2016. All of those individuals came from the apartment industry and then became our customers.

IM: What's been a challenge for y'all?

Johnson: Being here in Houston was a real challenge — there are entire skill sets that don't exist here. There's not technical product managers or lead engineers and you don't meet those people organically. When it came time for me to find someone to help me grow this business, it was like shooting in the dark, and I didn't yet have a network. I met someone online and, for a fee, they built our first product, and it left a lot to be desired. I think a lot of people would have stopped there.

Consumer-facing businesses are very, very hard. You look at our lead investor, Mercury Fund, which I would consider ne of the top VCs in the state, if not the country. They built a very successful series of funds doing B-to-B software. Even in Austin, which is known as a tech hub and has a vibrant startup scene doesn't have a big B-to-C presence. There's not capital for B-to-C companies in the middle of the country because the capital required to go direct to consumers is really high and the model is not nearly as predictable. Apartment Butler is not B-to-C; we have a B-to-B-to-C strategy, where we sell to the the apartments and they become our channel for customer acquisition.

IM: So, how did you manage to stand out in an environment that was so tough?

Johnson: What we're doing is unique. I didn't realize how complicated our business model was going to be.

Houston's doing a lot. It's going to be a long road. But as a city, there's a need for the largest venture capital provider in town to support companies that have gotten really good traction, whether or not it fits their mold. The city needs capital to flow into businesses

Every single VC I pitched to in wanted to require us to move to Austin as a condition to our funding. I wanted to grow this business in Houston. I thought I was going to have to move to Austin because there wasn't a VC for us here. The fact that Blair and Mercury stepped up and said, I know this is a little outside the box but this company is great for Houston. We need to keep them." And I'm glad they did.

IM: What's next for your company?

Johnson: To date, we have been delivering services that have already existed. Yes, we can provide a lower price point and have a hotel-like experience where you can just use an app and we go through your apartment office.
What we're doing now and what we're rolling out in January is our first line of microservices that haven't existed before, or only existed for the ultra-rich.
You want someone to just come in and change your bedsheets, wash your dishes, clean your bathroom, or put your groceries away. The type of experience now starts to be just what you need — a lot of people don't want to pay $70 for a whole cleaning.
The other thing would be footprint expansion. We are launching in Austin on January 7, and we'll be launching our fourth market outside of Texas in March. And then from there, we're going to rapidly accelerate how quickly we're expanding.

IM: What keeps you up at night, as it pertains to your business?

Johnson: We are creating a new industry: Resident services in apartments. I know $2 million sounds like a lot of money, but when you're hiring very talented people, it goes fast. There are 100 things I want to try — experiments I want to run to see how we can get new residents and see what works best, and I only have enough money to do 25. So, it's making sure that I try the 25 best things I can afford to do. Prioritization is what keeps me up at night.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Proxima Clinical Research has announced an office expansion — and more Houston innovation news. Photo via Twitter

Houston's innovation ecosystem has had some big news this month, from new job titles for Houston innovators to expanding office space.

In this roundup of Houston startup and innovation news, a Houston organization expands its footprint in the TMC, Rice University opens applications for a cleantech accelerator, and more.

Organization expands footprint in Houston

Proxima CRO has announced its expansion within TMCi. Photo via Twitter

Proxima Clinical Research, a contract research organization headquartered in Houston, announced that it is expanding its office space in the Texas Medical Center Innovation Factory.

"Texas Medical Center is synonymous with innovation, and the TMC Innovation space has proven an ideal location for our CRO. It's an important part of our origin story and a big part of our success," says Kevin Coker, CEO and co-founder of Proxima CRO, in a news release.

The expansion will include around 7,500-square feet of additional office space.

"The resources found across TMC's campuses allow for companies such as Proxima Clinical Research to achieve clinical and business milestones that will continue to shape the future of life sciences both regionally and globally. We are excited for Proxima to expand their footprint at TMC Innovation Factory as they further services for their MedTech customers," says Tom Luby, director of TMC Innovation, in the release.

$20M grant fuels hardtech program's expansion

Activate is planting its roots in Houston with a plan to have its first set of fellows next year. Photo via Activate.org

A hardtech-focused nonprofit officially announced its Houston expansion this week. Activate, which InnovationMap reported was setting up its fifth program here last month, received a $20M commitment by the National Science Foundation to fuel its entrance into the Bayou City.

“Houston’s diversity offers great promise in expanding access for the next generation of science entrepreneurs and as a center of innovation for advanced energy," says NSF SBIR/STTR program director Ben Schrag in a news release.

The organization was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

“We are delighted to be opening our newest Activate community in Houston,” says Activate Anywhere managing director Hannah Murnen, speaking at the annual Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy Innovation Summit. “Houston is a city where innovation thrives, with an abundance of talent, capital, and infrastructure—the perfect setting for the Activate Fellowship.”

Activate is still looking its Houston’s first managing director is actively underway and will select fellows for Activate Houston in 2024.

TMC names new entrepreneur in residence

Zaffer Syed has assumed a new role at TMC. Photo via TMC.org

Houston health tech innovator has announced that he has joined the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory as entrepreneur in residence for medtech. Zaffer Syed assumed the new role this month, according to his LinkedIn, and he's been an adviser for the organization since 2017.

Syed has held a few leadership roles at Saranas Inc., a medical device company founded in Houston to detect internal bleeding following medical procedures. He now serves as adviser for the company.

"As CEO of Saranas, he led the recapitalization of the company that led to the FDA De Novo classification and commercial launch of a novel real-time internal bleed monitoring system for endovascular procedures," reads the TMC website. "Zaffer oversaw clinical development, regulatory affairs and strategic marketing at OrthoAccel Technologies, a private dental device startup focused on accelerating tooth movement in patients undergoing orthodontic treatment.

"Prior to working in startup ventures, Zaffer spent the first 13 years of his career in various operational roles at St. Jude Medical and Boston Scientific to support the development and commercialization of Class III implantable devices for cardiovascular and neuromodulation applications."

TMC is currently looking for an entrepreneur in residence for its TMCi Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics program.

Applications open for clean energy startup program

Calling all clean energy startups. Photo courtesy of The Ion

The Clean Energy Accelerator, an energy transition accelerator housed at the Ion and run by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, has opened applications for Class 3. The deadline to apply is April 14.

The accelerator, which helps early-stage ventures reach technical and commercial milestones through hybrid programming and mentorship, will host its Class 3 cohort from July 25 to Sept. 22.

“Accelerating the transition to a net-zero future is a key goal at Rice University. Through accelerating the commercial potential of our own research as well as supporting the further adoption of global technologies right here in Houston, the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator is proof of that commitment,” says Paul Cherukuri, vice president of innovation at Rice, in a news release. “The Rice Alliance has all the critical components early-stage energy ventures need for success: a corporate innovation network, energy investor network, access to mentors and a well-developed curriculum. This accelerator program is a unique opportunity for energy startups to successfully launch and build their ventures and get access to the Houston energy ecosystem.”

According to Rice, the 29 alumni companies from Class 1 and 2 have gone on to secure grants, partnerships, and investments, including more than $75 million in funding. Companies can apply here, learn more about the accelerator here or attend the virtual information session April 3 by registering here.

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