Blog: Jeremy Schneider

Not everything can be scripted, but here's a good start for a start-up. Jeremy Schneider, founder and president of Ann Arbor-based Rentlinx, an online rental housing multi-list, tells the tale of a software developer creating a company from scratch and learning to make bucks from the mostly free service he markets on a budget.

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  This turned out to be great for us, because now all of their members who wanted to list on 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  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!