HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 27

New Houston startup pivots to provide relief for small businesses struggling to pay rent

Josh Feinberg's fintech startup might be a solution to your lack of capital amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Photo courtesy of Tenavox

Josh Feinberg hates security deposits. It's a sum of money sitting in an account, not earning interest and not doing either the landlord or the tenant any good.

That's why Feinberg and his co-founder, Marissa Limsiaco, created Otso. The duo previously founded Tenavox, an online portal for commercial real estate listings for brokers to generate leads, and have now launched this fintech platform that provides landlords with an alternative to cash security deposits.

Feinberg teamed up with Euler Hermes, a 135-year-old credit insurance company, to create Otso, and the credit company backs the lease performance of each tenant that is approved by Otso. The transaction calls for a fee added to the rent, but no large cash deposit would be required.

Both landlords and tenants can apply for Otso, and the process can be done with a new lease or an addendum for existing leases — something that Feinberg sees as an opportunity considering the financial burden COVID-19 has put on startups and small businesses.

Feinberg tells the Houston Innovators Podcast that, while he originally envisioned Otso to be a new deal product for landlords to offer an alternative to cash deposits, he saw the tool as an opportunity for small businesses struggling to pay rent that have a shortage of liquidity. He tossed out the original marketing plans and pivoted to present Otso as that liquidity solution for small business tenants.

"The cool thing about having a startup is that, unlike a big business, you can be really nimble," Feinberg says in the episode.

The COVID-19-caused crisis has rocked the commercial real estate industry. On a recent call with around 30 brokers, Feinberg says none of them had made a deal in the past month.

"This is the first time I've ever seen the entire market basically grind to a halt," he says.

On the episode, Feinberg shares some advice for startups worried about their relationship with their landlords. He stresses how important communication and tapping into resources available online like Otso, which has a slew of info online.

"Real estate is a team sport," Feinberg says. "You need these advisers now more than ever — talk to your landlord and your broker."

There's no doubt for Feinberg that the country is going to recover, and the biggest question marks are regarding timeline. Ultimately, innovative companies will pull through and might even be better for the challenges overcame.

"Great companies are built during crises — that's been true for a very long time," "There are smart people working on big problems no matter what the economy or outside markets are doing. And when they are able to survive periods like this, they come out significantly stronger than their competitors and weaker or outdated concepts."

Feinberg joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Otso, advice for startups keeping lean, and where the government's next round of relief should go to. Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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Building Houston

 
 

A Houston founder and small-space expert founded TAXA Outdoors to create better campers than what was in the market. Now, amid the pandemic, he's seen sales skyrocket. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

In 2014 Garrett Finney, a former senior architect at the Habitability Design Center at NASA, brought his expertise in what he describes as "advocating for human presence living in a machine" to the outdoors market.

After being less-than enchanted by the current RV and camper offerings, the Houstonian developed a new series of adventure vehicles that could safely and effectively get its users off-grid — even if still Earth-bound — under the company he dubbed TAXA Outdoors.

The vehicles would follow much of the same standards that Finney worked under at NASA, in which every scenario and square inch would be closely considered in the smartly designed spaces. And rather that designing the habitats for style alone, function and storage space for essential gear took precedence. According to Finney, the habitat was to be considered a form of useful adventure equipment in its own right.

"Ceilings should be useful. They're not just for putting lights on," he says. "Even when there's gravity that's true."

Today TAXA offers four models of what they call "mobile human habitats" that can be towed behind a vehicle and sleep three to four adults, ranging from about $11,000 to $50,000 in price.

TAXA's mobile human habitats range in size and price. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

And amid the pandemic — where people were looking for a safe way to escape their homes and get outside — the TAXA habitats were flying off the shelves, attracting buyers in Texas, but mainly those in Colorado, California, and other nature-filled areas.

"January, was looking really good — like the break out year. And then the pandemic was a huge red flag all around the world," Finney says. "[But] we and all our potential customers realized that going camping was the bet. They were with their family, they were getting outside, they were achieving sanity having fun and creating memories."

According to TAXA President Divya Brown, the company produced a record 430 habitats in 2020. But it still wasn't enough to match the number of orders coming in.

"We had we had almost a year and a half worth of backlog at the old facility, which we've never experienced before," Brown says.

To keep up with demand, the company moved into a 70,000-square-foot space off of U.S. 290 that now allows multiple operations lines, as well as a showroom for their vehicles and enough room for their staff, which tripled in size from 25 to 75 employees since the onset of the pandemic.

The first priority at the new facility is to make up the backlog they took on in 2020. Next they hope to produce more than 1,000 habitats by the end of 2021 and 3,000 in the coming years.

"It's a pretty significant jump for us," Brown says. "We really believe there's a huge market for this."

With the new facility, the TAXA team hopes to catch up with the explosive sales growth. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

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