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

 
 

Planning to open in the coming months, The Ion Houston has made great progress on its construction. Scroll down to view the slideshow. Photo by Natalie Harms

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

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