Blog: Jeremy Schneider

Jeremy Schneider is a successful entrepreneur, an expert software developer, and a spirited speaker.

He founded RentLinx in 2003, while completing his Masters degree in Computer Science at the University of Michigan. He has extensive experience in the rental housing industry, and has helped hundreds of property managers, owners,
and associations successfully market rental homes and apartments online.

Jeremy is an accomplished software developer with successful work experience at Microsoft (Redmond, WA), Tellabs (Chicago, IL) and Realtime Technologies (Royal Oak, MI). He is the creator of the popular ASP.NET Project FTP deployment tool used by ASP.NET developers from around the world. While earning his computer engineering degree at Michigan, Jeremy served as president of the Eta Kappa Nu honor society, an office previously held by Larry Page, co-founder of Google and Kevin O'Connor, co-founder of Double Click.

Jeremy was recently named one of Crain's Detroit Business' "20 in their 20s", a list of twenty-somethings making a difference in metro Detroit.

As a public speaker, Jeremy holds his audience’s attention with high-energy, humorous talks that are packed with specific information gleaned from his knowledge of the rental housing and computer industries.

He received his M.S.E. and B.S. E. degrees in computer science and engineering from the University of Michigan.

Jeremy Schneider - Most Recent Posts:

Jeremy Schneider - Post 3: Marketing Free for Free

In my last blog, I talked about how we organized our business to give the majority of our services away for free.  I may have painted a pretty picture of high school drug dealers and Swedish Bikini Teams, but it’s not all sweetmeats and sugar plums.  Small businesses with a primarily free product face a steep challenge made tougher based on their business model: Marketing.

Marketing is a challenge for all businesses, but businesses that give most of their service away for free often operate on very small budgets, especially at the beginning.  We rely on having a much larger reach in order to make some coin off the fringes.  The challenge is reaching more people with fewer marketing dollars.

The good news is that you’re giving something valuable away for free, which certainly helps the cause.  However, in many markets word does not spread as quickly as you would like.  Sites like Facebook and Twitter are built entirely around networks of people, so they lend themselves to fast growth with little marketing.  In my business, we sell to property managers who often see using our service as a competitive advantage.  They sometimes even go out of their way to not tell their competitors about us, which certainly hurts our ability to grow “virally”.

So what to do? I can’t claim to be a marketing guru.  I don’t even play one on TV.  So instead of telling you what to do, I’ll tell you what we did at my company, which I think is a pretty unique form of marketing and may help inspire an idea or two.

We were seeking property managers.  Property managers can be a hard group of people to reach.  They often operate in very small companies and aren’t always receptive to new technologies.  We wanted to be everywhere they looked (great idea, right?).  The problem was that we didn’t have much money for things like radio, direct mail, magazines, Google Adwords, or other types of ads.  Instead, we decided to base our marketing effort around a network of partners.

We want partners!  In my last article, I described how we landed our first partner, the Washtenaw Area Apartment Association (WA3).  We developed an apartment search for their website, so renters could search their members’ properties on their site (which they branded as MIdigs.com).  This turned out to be great for us, because now all of their members who wanted to list on MIdigs.com did so through our site.  This gave birth to the idea of offering a search like this to any organization serving property managers or renters.

Free is not cheap enough. We gave WA3 the search, for free, and planned to do the same for most of our partners.  Giving away something for free is helpful, but certainly not sufficient to make a “sale”.  We really needed to offer our partners something of value.  If we just ask a partner to market our service to their members without giving them something of concrete value, we would never add a partner. Instead, we offer our partners an extremely valuable service that acts as a benefit to their members. They can use it as a selling point when attracting new members (want to be listed on midigs.com?  Join the association). 

We hit the streets. We spend most of our marketing effort on selling this free service to partners.  It’s still not easy to convince a new organization to buy into a totally new system, but once they do we have an advocate for our service with an incredibly valuable avenue to our target audience.  We’re commonly mentioned in newsletters, e-mail blasts, meetings, etc, without any cost to us.  Each of our partners wants their site to succeed, which in turn helps us draw new property managers to our system.

Success breeds success. Once we got our foot in the door at WA3, we contacted all of the other apartment associations in Michigan and soon enough we were powering apartment searches on all of their sites.  Next came the Ann Arbor Observer, Michigan Housing Council, the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition, the Michigan Smoke-Free Apartment listing and a few others.  Now, property managers in Michigan could list their property once on our site and advertise on all these partner sites at once.

Then a crazy thing happened. We got a phone call from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.  They were looking to build a state-wide housing locator.  During preliminary talks with all of their housing partners, our name kept coming up.  It turns out, all of their partners were all of our partners.  All of a sudden, we had a deal with MSHDA because of our market position with the partners we had spent the last year or two getting on board.

Very soon (especially by government standards), the Michigan Housing Locator powered by RentLinx was born.  Now anyone who wants to market rental housing to Michigan residents can do so for free though our site and we have an incredibly valuable tap into the network of hard-to-reach property managers.

The investment paid off. Our investment of time and energy into building our network of partners is continuing to pay off.  We now power rental housing searches on about 30 partner sites all over the country, all of whom encourage property managers to list. The net result is that we have about 50 new property management companies registering on our site every single day, without spending a dollar on advertising.  This number will just continue to grow as we add partners and make the network more valuable.

The end. Thanks to Metromode for the opportunity to be a guest blogger and spam their site with lots of SEO friendly links to our Free Apartment Listings.  And a special thanks to anyone who was able to stomach three long blog articles written by a computer engineer with a moderate grasp of the English language.  Follow me on twitter for shorter yet equally incomprehensible posts!


Jeremy Schneider - Post 2: Giving it Away for Free

After thrashing around for the first couple years after starting my business, my partner and I decided to drastically change our business plan.  The good news was that we would finally have some direction.  The bad news was that our new business model involved giving away the vast majority of our services for free.  I think I must have been inspired by watching that "South Park" episode with the little gnomes.  They had this great idea that went something like this:

Phase 1: Give away the vast majority of your services for free
Phase 2: ???
Phase 3: Profit!

Although, thinking back, I’m pretty sure their phase 1 involved stealing underpants.  But that is neither here nor there.  The point is: the system appeared solid.  It did seem to hinge on phase 2, but I was pretty sure that would work itself out once we got started.

How did it start? Early on, we were selling custom software.  Basically we were building websites, creating databases, whatever people needed.  It was a tough way to make a living, because after each project was done, we were back to square one and had no product of our own that could potentially gain momentum or that we could sell with a low marginal cost. One thing we had going for us is that we started carving out a niche in the property management industry.  Landlords were generally behind the technology curve and we made a few easy sales of a database-powered website to showcase their properties.

The worst idea I ever heard. We had made some connections in the industry, including some friends at the Washtenaw Area Apartment Association.  At this point Jamie Schmunk, a board member of the association, approached me with an idea.  He said we should build an apartment search for the apartment association so visitors to their site could search all of their members' properties. I listened intently, smiled, nodded, thanked him for the input and decided it was the stupidest thing I had ever heard. 

First of all, creating a fully featured apartment search of many landlords' properties would be a ton of work.  The apartment association didn’t have the kind of money it would take to make it worth our while, and it sounded like a maintenance nightmare dealing with all the property managers updating their information in our system. Plus, the property managers were already paying to be members of the association, so trying to up-sell them to list their properties on the site seemed unfair and unlikely to work at best.

But then I remembered Phase 1. So of course, we couldn’t charge the property managers to list.  No one would be willing to pay for it, the search would be useless to renters, and the system would die a slow painful death.  I did like the idea of more landlords using our system, even if it was for free.  It seemed like a good way to get landlords familiar with us, which had to be good, right?  So I decided, maybe we could bite the bullet and develop an apartment search for the association for a few thousand dollars.  But even that would be steep for them and, more and more, I was liking the idea of getting more landlords in our system.  So maybe we could lease them the apartment search for $600 per year. 

Then I decided I need to stop splitting hairs and just give them the damn thing for free.  I should point out, at this point in the story, that I was only a year or two out of college and had virtually no business success up until this point.  I was used to living on a thousand bucks a month, so putting in a month or two of unpaid work on a gamble seemed like a perfectly cromulent thing to do.  Plus those little gnomes had to be onto something, right?

Our free service was born.
Between the new apartment association website and the various clients who had paid us to develop their websites, we already had a need for a centralized database of rental properties.  We decided to expand on that and create a syndication service for landlords to advertise their properties.  They list once on our website and advertise on a bunch of different sites.   This way, they only have to update their property information in one place.  And we decided to give this service away for free!
But why give it away for free? We still get this question when our users find out how valuable our service is.  I can answer it in a few ways:

•    Because we can. In this crazy Internet world of ours, the marginal cost of providing our syndication service to the next user is tiny.
•    Because we have to. This isn’t strictly true, but with craigslist out there and 1,000 more hungry entrepreneurs wishing they were craigslist, it’s harder to pull off a “pay to post” business model these days.
•    Because it’s good for business. We currently have about 50 new property management companies registering with us every single day to take advantage of our free service.  This gives us an incredible opportunity to sell them stuff.  That kind of visibility would otherwise cost a boatload of money in advertising expenses. 

Ok, I actually did have a sneaking suspicion of what Phase 2 was.  Giving away your service is all fun and good if you can get away with it, but most of us can’t pay the rent in warm fuzzy feelings.  If you ask a lot of web startups with a “give it away for free” model how they plan to make money, they’ll just trail off muttering something about growth and advertising.  Certainly, some web companies get big enough to get away with this, but for the rest of us we need something slightly more tangible. 
 
Here’s the secret: Sell something!  It’s the business model high school drug dealers have had perfected for decades.  Give a little away, get them hooked, then make the sale. Well, maybe it’s not exactly like high school drug dealing, but here’s the point: High school drug dealers, much like the underpants gnomes, are seasoned business professionals and we should take a page from their playbooks whenever possible.
 
So what do you sell? I certainly don’t recommend selling drugs.  The tax implications alone make it an unappealing business.   You, of course, are better off selling something that is an extension of your free service.  The term “freemium” has become popular when describing companies that offer their basic service for free, but charge for the premium service. 

Flickr, in my opinion, has the killer freemium model.  You can use nearly all of their photo sharing site for free, but they lock down your monthly upload allowance making it painful to use.  When you upgrade, you get unlimited uploads and storage.  It’s exactly what you want: the free version is attractive and extremely painful to use, and the paid version is all rainbows and butterflies, encouraging people to upgrade. 

RentLinx uses a slightly different strategy, which I’m going to make up a word for right now: freelated.  With a freelated business model, you give away your entire service for free, but sell a related product (as opposed to crippling your main service).  Our related product is a rental housing search for landlords' websites.  Instead of hiring a web developer to build a search of their properties from scratch, they can plug in their listings directly from our centralized database that they’re already using.  Selling this product is much easier once they know us and love us, rather than trying to cold-call and push a new service on them!

Is it really that easy? Of course not.  If it were, I wouldn’t have time to write this blog because I would be too busy trying to figure out how to get the entire Swedish Bikini Team into my Olympic-sized hot tub.  But honestly, we’re still in the Wild West days of the Internet and the landscape is constantly changing.  Businesses need to proactively evolve or the next craigslist is going to come and each your lunch. (I’m looking in your direction, newspapers).  The moral of the story?  Be like the gnomes.


Jeremy Schneider - Post 1: Diving into the deep end (without knowing how to dive)

I don’t know what you call the ailment that I have.  I think I can best describe it by the symptoms I’ve experienced. In college, not a single professor knew my name.1 I never went to office hours. I always sat in the back of class and didn’t take notes. I never once asked for clarification on a question during a test. I went a few semesters without even buying the required textbooks. In high school I didn’t study for the SAT or even look at a practice exam before I walked in to take the real thing.

For some reason I saw these things as signs of weakness. I thought that asking for help or trying would mean that I was less smart or less capable. I guess you could say I was afraid to try. Maybe I was afraid to fail and not trying was my ever-ready excuse.

Luckily for me, my parents gave me the smartness genes to get away with these types of shenanigans, but I certainly wasn’t living up to my potential. I did passably in school, but not nearly as well as I could have done. But shining
or not, it was working for me.  I got decent grades, and I got to tell myself that I was somehow tougher for doing it without trying. Unfortunately for me, in the real world you don’t get brownie points for not trying. It’s a horrible habit I wish I had never picked up.
 
So what’s this have to do with diving into the deep end, you’re probably not asking yourself?

Well, as college was ending, I decided to start a company. I spent my years at U of M taking special care to not foster any relationships with other budding entrepreneurs. I meticulously made sure not to join start-up groups or attend events catering to the craft. I avoided, like the plague, anyone who might serve as a mentor or advisor to a young, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed entrepreneur like myself.

So what did I have? Well… I assumed the first step was telling people I was starting a company, so that’s what I did.

The point is, I had no idea what I was getting myself into and I knew it. Reasons may vary for others, but I imagine there are a lot of us who are drawn to entrepreneurship, but don’t feel that they belong.

I distinctly remember feeling incredulous that any person or business would ever send a check to my “business”. After all, it’s something I just made up out of thin air. I read articles in business magazines about things like cutting costs to improve ROI or managing debt ratio. These things are pretty meaningless and uninviting when you’re still not sure how you will make your first dollar.
 
Over my first few years starting from scratch, I’ve picked up a few tips that might be helpful to those faced with the daunting task of making something from nothing.  Here they are:

Read about others' start-up experiences.

 
My first few months, I was never quite sure if I was even in the same ballpark as other successful entrepreneurs in their early days. I thought when you heard they were “roughing it” early on, maybe that meant flying business class
instead of first class.  I learned a couple of fun tidbits from reading the blogs of some now famous entrepreneurs:
     
•    When times were tough, Bob Parsons, founder of GoDaddy.com, offered to sell half of his first company to his friend for $5,000.  His friend said no. (Bob later sold the whole company for $64 million… oops).

•    When Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, hit $1,000 in his personal bank account for the first time in his adult life, he celebrated by buying new towels to replace his old, ratty ones.


•    In 1952 at the age of 65, broke and living on social security, Colonel Sanders (yeah, the chicken guy) decided to start franchising his chicken recipe, which most considered an absurd idea.  Legend has it that the
Colonel went restaurant-to-restaurant pitching his idea and was turned down 1,008 times before the 1,009th restaurant said yes.

These are numbers and problems I can identify with.
 
Take advantage of the beginning.

One of the mistakes I made at the beginning was starting with no direction. For the first two years of my “business”, I was basically thrashing around in the deep end with no direction and no strategy. My company originally sold “custom software”. It seemed to make sense to me, because that’s what I did -- develop software. Unfortunately, no one wants “custom software”, they want applications that do their taxes or a website that organizes their baseball cards or some other need-specific software. 

I’m pretty sure I did not think about my business idea at all, and just decided to do what I knew.  If I could do it over again, I would steal an idea I heard Kevin O’Connor, founder of DoubleClick, describe at Michigan’s
Entrepalooza. He recommended writing down 100 business ideas on note cards and pinning them up on the wall.  It’s too easy to get fixated on your first idea without really critically thinking about its weaknesses.  Once you have 99 other ideas posted up on the wall next to it, your first idea might not seem so glorious. If it does, then you know you’re on the right track (or you’re a bad idea thinker-upper).

Choose a niche. 

I believe it’s crucial for a small start-up to have a very narrow niche. Imagine if a new small restaurant opened up in your city that offered various cuisines, including Mexican, Chinese, ice cream, sushi, Italian and sandwiches.  Would you ever go there? I wouldn’t. When I’m in the mood for any of those things, I want to go to the specialist who will do a really great job at exactly what I want. 

Specialization is the only prayer a small business has at competing with the big guys who have the funds to do everything. Don’t sell “sports equipment”; sell high school-branded hockey skates.  Don’t sell “custom software”; offer an Internet advertising service to rental housing owners.  (That’s what my company started doing exclusively in 2005 when we changed our name to RentLinx).

Work your network.


The first software I ever sold in the rental housing industry was to my former landlord, Oppenheimer Properties.  I’m fairly certain the only reason they entertained the idea of working with me is that I introduced myself as “a
former tenant” instead of “some guy trying to convince you to give me money” (which is, coincidentally, how I now introduce myself to all potential clients).

In my custom software days, my clients also included a company my mom
was contracting with and an organization a former teammate owned. If you can land a few clients through your network, and do a great job for them, hopefully the referrals start rolling in.
 
Be persistent.


It’s almost cliché at this point, but it’s oh so true. Successes are rarely made overnight. They’re almost always due to the unceasing pushing and striving for improvement by the business owner.

I really like the analogy used by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. He describes a flywheel that is a “massive metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle, about 30 feet in diameter, 2 feet thick, and weighing about 5,000 pounds.”  Growing your company is like getting the flywheel to spin.  It’s not going to happen quickly, but with constant, even small pushes in the same
direction.  Eventually, over time, it will spin faster and faster and the momentum will start working with you, instead of against you!

I’ll end with the best piece of business advice I’ve heard in the last five years. It came, of course, from the AOL away message of my college buddy, Eric Jankowski. Luckily, he was quoting Calvin Coolidge:

"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not - nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not - unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not - the world is full
of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."  -Calvin Coolidge


1 Except Professor Peter Chen, who memorized every student’s name after taking photos of each of us on the first day. Thanks, Professor Chen.


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