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

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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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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

H-E-B leader gifts $5 million to historic Houston-area university for future students

HEB and PVAMU

The leader of the Lone Star State’s beloved H-E-B has bestowed a monumental gift upon a historic Houston-area university.

On November 17, Prairie View A&M University announced that H-E-B chairman Charles Butt — one of America’s favorite CEOs and member of one of Texas’ richest families — has donated $5 million to create Founders Scholarships for incoming PVAMU students.

“The $5 million gift will provide a permanent endowment to support students today and in the coming years,” a release notes. “Initially generating approximately $200,000 a year for scholarships, the fund will grow significantly in coming years, making even more available to support students.”

The scholarships will be available to students from public high schools in Texas graduating in the top quartile of their class, the release says. They must be incoming first-year students, enrolled in a full-time course load, and as scholarship recipients, they will benefit from “enrichment opportunities unique to their [Founders Scholarships] cohort.”

Scholarship disbursements will begin in fall 2022, a spokesperson confirms; the number of initial scholarships available has not been revealed.

“Charles Butt has been amazingly generous to our university. He has shown time and time again that he genuinely cares about the opportunities afforded to students at PV. We are indebted to him for his grace and his humanity,” says Ruth Simmons, president of PVAMU, in the release.

Prairie View A&M University is the second-oldest public institution of higher learning in the state and is one of Texas’ historically Black universities. It is located approximately 50 miles northwest of Houston and has a current enrollment of more than 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston logistics software startup secures $8.4M series A from international investors

money moves

A Houston-based software company that's reducing cost and risk in the marine supply chain has closed its latest round of funding.

Voyager Portal, a software-as-a-service platform closed an $8.4 million series A investment round this week. The round was led by Phaze Ventures, a VC fund based in the Middle East, and included new investors — ScOp Venture Capital, Waybury Capital and Flexport. Additionally, all of Voyager's existing investors contributed to this round.

Voyager has reported significant growth over the past two years since its $1.5 million seed round. Between Q3 2020 to Q3 2021, the company's revenue has increased 13 times and was up 40 percent from Q2 2021. Voyager now manages over $1 billion in freight on the platform, according to a news release.

“Voyager Portal was created to significantly reduce cost, risk, and complexity when transporting bulk materials around the world,” says Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager, in the release. “The last two years have demonstrated just how critical shipping bulk commodities is to global markets – freight rates have increased and port congestion is at an all-time high – accelerating the demand for Voyager’s solution.”

Costello says the fresh funds will be used to support Voyager's continued growth.

“With our Series A funding, we’ll be able to expedite our product roadmap to support an international client base whilst expanding our engineering, development, marketing and sales teams internationally," he adds.

Matthew Costello Voyager Matthew Costello is the CEO and co-founder of Voyager.

Built from the ground up, Voyager's software was created to replace the antiquated and complex legacy systems the market has seen for decades. The platform allows companies to seamlessly collaborate in real time over a single shipment.

“Voyager's implementation has been hugely impressive,” says Adam Panni, operations manager at OMV, a multinational energy company based in Austria, in the release. “The low-code functionality allows almost real-time modifications to the developing workflows and reporting capabilities with no lengthy development and minimal testing prior to implementation. By digitizing data capture across all our physical movements, we are able to analyze our business much better, enabling faster and smarter decisions driven by data. This, in turn, will provide significant, quantifiable cost reductions for our business.”

Abdullah Al-Shaksy, co-founder and CEO of Phaze Ventures says the platform is evolving the industry as a whole at an important moment.

“Voyager is changing the way companies are thinking of their global shipping operations,” he says. “Global supply chains are becoming increasingly complex and strained, and there is an incredible treasure trove of data that organizations are underutilizing in their decision-making process. We believe what Voyager has created for their customers across the globe will revolutionize this space forever.”

Rice research: Revisiting the merits of nondigital data collecting

houston voices

Academics are learning quickly that investigations based on data from online research agencies have their drawbacks. Thousands of such studies are released every year – and if the data is compromised, so too are the studies themselves.

So it’s natural for researchers, and the managers who rely on their findings, to be concerned about potential problems with the samples they’re studying. Among them: participants who aren’t in the lab and researchers who can’t see who is taking their survey, what they are doing while answering questions or even if they are who they claim to be online. In the wake of a 2018 media piece about Amazon’s Mechanical Turks Service, “Bots on Amazon’s MTurk Are Ruining Psychology Studies,” one psychology professor even mused, “I wonder if this is the end of MTurk research?” (It wasn’t).

To tackle this problem, Rice Business professor Mikki Hebl joined colleagues Carlos Moreno and Christy Nittrouer of Rice University along with several other colleagues to highlight the value of other research methods. Four alternatives – field experiments, archival data, observations and big data – represent smart alternatives to overreliance on online surveys. These methods also have the advantage of challenging academics to venture outside of their laboratories and examine real people and real data in the real world.

Field experiments have been around for decades. But their value is hard to overestimate. Unlike online studies, field experiments enhance the role of context, especially in settings that are largely uncontrolled. It’s hard to fake a field experiment in order to create positive results since each one costs a considerable time and money.

And field experiments can yield real-life results with remarkable implications for society at large. Consider one experiment among 56 middle schools in New Jersey, which found that spreading anti-conflict norms was hugely successful in reducing the need for disciplinary action. Such studies have an impact well beyond what could be achieved with a simple online survey.

The best way to get started with a good field experiment, Hebl and her colleagues wrote, is for researchers to think about natural field settings to which they have access, either personally or by leveraging their networks. Then, researchers should think about starting with the variables critical for any given setting and which they would most like to manipulate to observe the outcome. When choosing variables, it’s helpful to start by thinking about what variable might have conditions leading to the greatest degree of behavior change if introduced into the setting.

Archival data is another excellent way to work around the limitations of online surveys, the researchers argue. These data get around some of the critical drawbacks of field research, including problems around how findings apply in a more general way. Archival data, especially in the form of state or national level data sets, provide information and insight into a large, diverse set of samples that are more representative of the general population than online studies.

Archival data can also help answer questions that are either longitudinal or multilevel in nature, which can be particularly tricky or even impossible to capture with data collected by any single research team. As people spend increasing amounts of time on social media, the internet also serves as a source of newer forms of archival data that can lend unique insights into individuals’ thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors over time.

With every passing year, technology becomes increasingly robust and adept at collecting massive amounts of data on an endless variety of human behavior. For the scientists who research social and personality psychology, the term “big data” refers not only to very large sets of data but also to the tools and techniques that are used to analyze it. The three defining properties of Big Data in this context include the speed of data processing and collection, the vast amount of data being analyzed and the sheer variety of data available.

By using big data, social scientists can generate research based on various conditions, as well as collect data in natural settings. Big data also offers the opportunity to consolidate information from huge and highly diverse stores of data. This technology has many applications, including psychological assessments and improving security in airports and other transportation hubs. In future research, Hebl and her team noted, researchers will likely leverage big data and its applications to detect our unconscious emotions.

Big data, archival information and field studies can all be used in conjunction with each other to maximize the fidelity of research. But researchers shouldn’t forget even more old-fashioned techniques, including the oldest: keen observation. With observation, there are often very few, if any, manipulations and the goal is simply to systematically record the way people behave.

Researchers – and the managers who make decisions based on their findings – should consider the advantages of old-style, often underused methodologies, Hebl and her colleagues argue. Moving beyond the college laboratory and digital data survey-collection platforms and into the real world offers some unparalleled advantages to science. For the managers whose stock prices may hinge on this science, it’s worth knowing – and understanding – how your all-important data was gathered.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Mikki Hebl, the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Professor of psychology at Rice University, and Carlos Moreno and Christy Nittrouer, who are graduate students at Rice University. Additional researchers include Ho Kwan Cheung, Eden B. King, and Hannah Markellis of George Mason University.