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.

Houston small businesses are struggling to pay their rent with doors closed and operations ceased — but where should the relief come from? Getty Images

Houston small businesses and landlords grapple with rent relief options during COVID-19 crisis

late fee

It's not too huge of an assumption to make that many Houston startups and small businesses failed to pay their rents in full yesterday. Since the city's stay-at-home mandate on March 24 — and even preceding that — most businesses have seen a slowdown of revenue as a result of COVID-19-caused business disruptions.

Business owners are frantically looking in their leases and searching online to see what rights they have and what sort of protection they have in such an unprecedented time.

"People are confused. They don't know what to do, and finding information is hard," says Meredith Wheeler, co-founder and chief creative officer of Sesh Coworking, which opened earlier this year.

Wheeler and Sesh's co-founder, Maggie Segrich, have created a petition to get on the radar of local elected officials to challenge them to pass legislation to protect small businesses in this time.

"At the end of the day, it would be so wonderful and idealistic to say that we could rely on the niceties and the moral compasses of our landlords, but it's probably not true for everyone and so that's why we need legislation to dictate what is right," Wheeler says.

But landlords are also in unchartered territory, says Josh Feinberg, who has worked in Houston as a commercial real estate broker and co-founded CRE tech platform, Tenavox.

"There's this idea that there's this acrimony between tenant and landlord, and I think, as a former broker, we're set up that way to get our side the best deal. But in reality, that's just not true," Feinberg says. "The majority of commercial real estate is owned by regular people — not usually some faceless, gigantic corporation."

And they have a piper to pay too, Feinberg adds. Ninety percent of CRE is owned by debt, he says. If the government steps in anywhere, it should be on the lender level, as well as creating some sort of tax relief.

"If there's any relief here, it's going to have to come from lenders, and I think you'd hear that from owners and brokers," Feinberg says.

In somewhat convenient timing, Tenavox has recently co-founded a new company that provides a bit of a solution for small businesses. Otso provides landlords with an alternative to cash security deposits. Traditionally, deposits are held onto by landlords — they aren't legally allowed to spend it unless the tenant defaults.

"In general, I think cash deposits are wasteful," Feinberg says. "It's critical capital that the business can hire with, invest, and use."

Tenavox 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.

The tool can be used on new leases, and, in light of the current situation, Otso can also be used to create an addendum in existing leases so that the tenant can get back their deposit and use it in this time of crisis. Either landlord or tenant can apply online and hear back that same day — Feinberg says he's focused on a speedy response to help get this deposit money back to the tenant.

"If we can get some liquidity back into the hands of the business, they have some a better chance of survival," Feinberg says.

Other than looking into Otso, Feinberg has some other recommendations for small business owners. He says they should be applying for relief from the Small Business Administration, which has more money to dole out than they have ever had. And, as it pertains to working with their landlords, communication is key. Show financials and specific information — like what March 2019 looks like compared to 2020 — so that landlords can take that to their lenders.

"An unprecedented crisis is going to require unprecedented solutions," Feinberg says.

These three movers and shakers in innovation are ones to know going into this week. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's Who

This week's Houston innovators to know covers all the bases, from a freshly started startup to one that closed a multimillion-dollar raise. Here's who in Houston innovation that you need to know.

Joe Alapat, CEO of Liongard

Houston-based Liongard has fresh funds thanks to a $4.5 million round. Courtesy of Liongard

Joe Alapat has something to celebrate. His Houston-based startup, Liongard — an Information Technology automation and management company — closed its Series A round of funding with an oversubscribed $4.5 million.

"This investment will help us accelerate development and integrations to create additional visibility across the varied technology stacks that MSPs [or, managed service provider] support," says Alapat in a release. "Our true goal is to support MSPs across the entire client journey — automating onboarding, documentation, and insight that speeds up issue resolution — unleashing teams to operate at 10X." Read the full story here.

Marissa Limsiaco, CEO of Tenavox

This month, InnovationMap is profiling the faces of Pride within innovation. Marissa Limsiaco, CEO of Tenavox, discusses her career and the company's expansion plans. Courtesy of Tenavox

Though Marissa Limsiaco actually resides down Highway 290 in Austin, her company, Tenavox, has some of its operations here. The commercial real estate-finding tech tool is growing, and Limsiaco is among the ones to credit for Tenavox's success. She discussed the growth plans — including the plan to enter the Dallas market by the end of the year — in a special Pride Month series. Read the Q&A here.

Ryan Schwartz, CEO and founder of Mental Health Match

Ryan Schwartz realized online dating was easier than finding a therapist. He created a tool to change that. Courtesy of Mental Health Match

When you're in great need for a therapist, the worst thing you have to do go through the process to actually find someone you can count on. It's a tiring process to discover a new therapist who meshes well with you and has the capabilities for what you need. Ryan Schwartz created Mental Health Match to pair up patient to professional — and it's designed to be free for those who need it most: The patient. Check out the story here.


These three entrepreneurs are in the business of solving problems. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Entrepreneurs see a problem, and solve it. This week's three innovators to know are no different. All three have personal stories of realizing there's something not right — and there's something they could do about it.

Here are this week's innovators with small businesses and big growth plans.

Yared Akalou, founder of Alcove Group

Courtesy of Yared Akalou

Yared Akalou found the perfect job for himself — only problem was that it was in San Diego. Uninterested in moving his wife and young daughter across the country, he decided to prove to his new employer that he could handle most of the job's responsibilities remotely, while traveling when needed.

It wasn't easy, and his user experience-focused mind realized there was a concentration problem when you worked remotely in public spaces. Now, with Alcove, he's created a solution. Alcove is a laptop case that pops up into a workspace that increases focus and privacy.

Alcove is available online, but Akalou has lofty goals of partnering with large companies to get Alcove in the hands of consultants, for instance.

Megan Eddings, founder of Accel Lifestyle

Courtesy of Accel Lifestyle

Entrepreneurs have to have a certain amount of positivity when it comes to all the challenges they face, and Megan Eddings has a surplus of both challenges and positivity. She's fought for years to design the perfect fabric that doesn't hold on to bacteria and sweat smells for a line of athleticwear she's creating. The chemist-turned-medical sales professional is now close to getting her company, Accel Lifestyle, off the ground.

When she's not focusing on Accel, she likes to inspire others to follow their passions and take a leap of faith like she did at speaking engagements or on social media. She even inspired her husband, Kyle, to start something of his own too.

Josh Feinberg, co-founder of Tenavox

Courtesy of Tenavox

For years, Josh Feinberg was a broker focusing on The Woodlands when he realized there was a huge need in the commercial real estate sector that brokers weren't able to fill. The equation was just off — there just aren't enough brokers to manage the millions of available square feet of space in major metros.

Feinberg created Tenavox with his business partner, Marissa Limsiaco, who is based in Austin. Tenavox is a website where small business owners can find space that fits their needs. Tenavox can benefits both sides of the transaction: entrepreneurs are only shown compatable properties and brokers are only getting tenant leads that are serious contenders.

The site also has VoxLink, which is a directory of industry experts — tenant brokers, moving companies, lawyers, etc. Feinberg hopes to expand to 50 metros in the next five years.

Josh Feinberg and Marissa Limsiaco have created a resource for small businesses to find commercial space with their fast-growing startup, Tenavox. Courtesy of Tenavox.

Real estate startup makes it easier for Houston small businesses to find space

Clickable

Whether you're looking for a home, a hair stylist, or an electrician, you're probably going online to find it. A Texas startup is trying to make finding retail or office space for small businesses just as easy and accessible.

Traditionally, businesses hire a broker to find applicable commercial real estate property to rent. But Josh Feinberg, a former broker with J. Beard Real Estate Co., says small business owners are more frequently beginning the search process online themselves — to no avail, since there really isn't any resources out there for tenants.

"We're the only tenant-focused platform," Feinberg says. "Commercial real estate isn't like residential where there's 100 websites that can show people homes to buy or apartments to rent."

He's worked over the past few years with his business partner, Marissa Limsiaco, to create Tenavox, an online referring platform where small business owners can search and find properties that fit their budgets, space requirements, and location.

"We're in a time where people don't want to waste time to be matched or linked to things they need, whether it be food coming to your door or a car picking you up to go somewhere," Limsiaco says. "Tenavox almost like a dating platform, where business owners tell us what their needs are in a space, vendors tell us who their ideal client or tenant is, and Tenavox matches them efficiently."

Tenavox currently has over 120 million square feet of rentable, searchable property in Houston and Austin. The company launched in Houston originally, where both the founders are from and where Feinberg is based, before moving into the Austin market, where Limsiaco now lives. It's free for users — just sign in with your email address and begin your search. You get only results that fit your specifications, and Tenavox only gets a kick back when a deal is made. The startup also recently picked up funding from RealCo, an accelerator program funded by Geekdom Fund.

Brokers stand to benefit from Tenavox as well. It's cheap for retail or office brokers to list their properties — $25 a year per property — and brokers only get potential leads that fit the profile of the property. For instance, if a small business owner is looking for a retail space in the Galleria area, they will only be matched with properties in the Galleria area that fit their budget.

"Brokers' sole job is to generate transactions," Feinberg says. "Tenavox is the only targeted marketing solution that is qualified lead generation for commercial brokers."

But that's just the start for the company that launched in March. Now that the infrastructure and data is set in place, Feinberg says they will expand to all the major Texas cities by next year and in over 50 markets nationwide in the next five years. Feinberg says they are targeting metros in private-record states, where traditionally there's more power on the landlord side of transactions.

Tenavox is also expanding its features for users. VoxLink is a search engine option within Tenavox where users can find reputable brokers, lawyers, moving companies, or other service providers.

"We're not just a listing site," Feinberg says. "We're a comprehensive resource."

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3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

As Houston transitions into summer, the city's tech and innovation ecosystem enters a new season — but with the same level of entrepreneurialism and can-do spirit.

This week's innovators to know includes a Houston tech founder fresh off fundraising, an architect with the future of the workplace, and a startup leader with a way to digitally connect churches to their congregations.

Joe Alapat, CEO and co-founder of Liongard

Courtesy of Liongard

After raising a $17 million round for his startup, Joe Alapat, CEO of Liongard, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss fundraising during a pandemic and how he's seen the Houston innovation ecosystem grow.

In the episode, Alapat also shares his advice for Houston startups looking to tap into the Houston innovation ecosystem — something he's watched grow over the past five years. Now, he says, when it comes to new startups in Houston, "the waves are hitting the shore."

"Houston has always been an entrepreneurial city, and this is just that next stage," Alapat says on the episode. "For me, it's the technology side that excites me even more to see technology companies really succeeding." Listen to the episode and read more.

Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space

Photo courtesy of Church Space

Large gathering places have been shut down for months at this point, and that includes places of worship. Houston entrepreneur Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space, usually focuses on connection organizations to spaces for worship or events. But, she is now focused on getting services online for congregations to connect with.

"It felt like the perfect opportunity to give churches a way to reach more people during the pandemic," says Edwards. "This would create more impact than anything we could possibly offer at this time." Read more.

Larry Lander, principal at PDR

Photo courtesy of PDR

While much of the country has been working from home for weeks, Larry Lander opines that this has made physical office space more important than ever.

"As a place to provide a technology offering we don't enjoy at our kitchen table, as a place to better support small group work beyond the tiny real estate of our laptop screens, and as a place that physically represents what our organizations are truly all about," he writes in a guest column for InnovationMap. The role of the workplace has never been more critical to business success." Read more.

Houston area gets failing score on social distancing, according to report

We got an F

According to a study that evaluated social distancing execution in counties, the Houston area didn't do so well and earned failing scores all around.

A widely used social distancing scoreboard from Unacast, a provider of location data and analytics, shows only one county in the Houston area — Austin County — received a grade above an F for social distancing as of May 20. But Austin County doesn't have much to brag about, since its social-distancing score is a D-. The Houston area's eight other counties, including Harris, flunked.

Relying on a huge storehouse of cellphone data, the Unacast scoreboard measures social distancing activity on a daily basis in every state and county compared with activity before the coronavirus outbreak. The scorecard assigns a letter grade of A through F based on current social-distancing behavior.

Each grade takes into account three factors:

  • Percentage change in average distance traveled compared with the pre-coronavirus period
  • Percentage change in visits to nonessential places compared with the pre-coronavirus period
  • Decrease in person-to-person encounters compared with the national pre-coronavirus average

So, how did Harris County, for instance, fare in those three categories? On May 20, its grade in each category was an F. Why? Because it had less than a 25 percent reduction in average mobility (based on distance traveled), less than a 55 percent reduction in nonessential visits, and less than a 40 percent decrease in "encounters density" compared with the national average.

The scoreboard indicates Harris County's grades have bounced around. On April 4, for example, Harris County received an A in the nonessential-visit category for reducing those visits by at least 70 percent.

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said in an interview published May 20 that he's worried the easing of social distancing in Houston will lead to a spike in coronavirus cases.

"I think here in Houston we're underachieving in a lot of aspects in public health, and it's no fault of the … public health leaders," Hotez said.

In Texas, the Houston area isn't alone in its apparent failure, at least recently, to adhere to social-distancing guidelines.

On May 20, not a single county in the Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio metro areas earned higher than a D on the Unacast report card.

All five counties in the Austin area got F's, as did all 13 counties in Dallas-Fort Worth, according to the scoreboard.

But as with Harris County, other metro areas' scores in individual categories have fluctuated over time. Here are a few examples:

  • On April 4, Travis and Dallas counties earned an A for at least a 70 percent reduction in nonessential visits.
  • On April 11, Tarrant County received a B for a 55 percent to 70 percent drop in average mobility.

In the San Antonio area, Bandera County earned the highest grade (D) of any county in the state's four major metros. Atascosa and Medina counties eked out grades of D-, while the remainder of the area's counties wound up in the F column.

In line with trends for its major-county counterparts, Bexar County's social distancing scores in individual categories have gone up and down. On April 11, for example, Bexar County earned a B for a 55 percent to 70 percent decline in average mobility.

The scores for the state's major metros appear to reflect the recent loosening of stay-at-home restrictions across Texas. But health experts still recommend sticking with social-distancing measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, Unacast points out that the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cite social distancing as the "most effective way" to combat coronavirus infections.

Unacast says it launched the social-distancing scoreboard in March to enable organizations to measure and grasp the efficiency of local social-distancing efforts.

"Data can be one of society's most powerful weapons in this public health war," Thomas Walle, co-founder and CEO of Unacast, says in an April 16 release.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Texas startup’s at-home COVID-19 test finally approved by feds

CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE

After its earlier effort was tripped up, Austin-based startup Everlywell on May 16 finally gained approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to launch its at-home coronavirus test.

In a May 18 release, Everlywell says the self-administered test will be available later this month. The company, which specializes in at-home tests for an array of conditions, is the first to receive approval from the FDA for an at-home coronavirus test that's not associated with a lab or a manufacturer of diagnostic products.

The FDA's emergency authorization allows Everlywell to work with a number of certified labs that process authorized tests, rather than just a single lab.

"The authorization of a COVID-19 at-home collection kit that can be used with multiple tests at multiple labs not only provides increased patient access to tests, but also protects others from potential exposure," Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, director of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, says in a release.

Everlywell's at­-home test determines the presence or absence of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID­-19 illness. Everlywell's test kit uses a short nasal swab and includes:

  • A digital screening questionnaire reviewed by a healthcare provider.
  • Instructions on how to ship the test sample to a lab.
  • Digital results within 48 hours of the sample being received by the lab.
  • Results reviewed by an independent physician.

Anyone who tests positive test will receive a telehealth consultation. All positive test results are reported to federal and local public health agencies when mandated.

On March 23, Everlywell was supposed to start shipping 30,000 coronavirus test kits to U.S. consumers. But before a single test was sent, the FDA blocked distribution of at-home, self-administered tests from Everlywell and other companies. After that, Everlywell pivoted to supplying coronavirus tests to health care providers and organizations.

As with the company's previously approved coronavirus test, Everlywell says its test for individuals is sold at no profit. The $109 price covers costs such as overnight shipping to a lab, lab-processing fees, and kit components. Some health insurers cover coronavirus tests.

Everlywell says it's working with members of Congress to enable companies that are neither healthcare providers nor labs to be directly reimbursed by health insurers. The startup also is exploring how its coronavirus test could be made available for free.

"Widespread access to convenient testing will play a crucial role in the country's ability to address the pandemic and prevent overburdening our healthcare facilities. As the national leader in connecting people with high­-quality laboratory testing, we are committed to fighting the spread of this virus in America," Julia Cheek, founder and CEO of Everlywell, says in the Everlywell release.

The company continues to supply its coronavirus tests to qualified healthcare organizations and government agencies.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.