Real estate, like seemingly everything else in the COVID era, had a weird year. 2021 saw a continued shift to a sellers' market and an ever-increasing demand for short-term rentals. For proptech companies, there has been a lot of opportunity—and money—in high-value homes and assets.
In the Los Angeles area, several proptech companies had an impressive year amidst the turmoil. Here’s our end-of-year look at some of the big moves in the sector.
AvantStay offers short term rental options for luxury properties. Similar to Airbnb or Vrbo (but more upscale), the company enters into long-term leasing agreements with property owners in sought-after areas and then converts the properties into vacation rentals. In 2021, Avantstay expanded into new markets in Colorado, South Carolina, and Hawaii; in total, they have agreements in over 600 properties across 60 different U.S. cities. In addition to rental help, AvantStay also offers other premium services for homeowners, like filling a property’s refrigerator with food before a guest arrives, or offering an in-house design team to ensure the property is as chic and luxurious as possible. AvantStay has grown by over 1,000% in the last three years with no signs of slowing down in 2022: The company is aiming to have 2,500 properties listed by the time 2023 rolls around.
Crexi has been one of the powerhouses of the Los Angeles proptech scene since it was founded in 2014, and 2022 was no different. The company allows users to buy, sell, and lease commercial real estate via their online portal. Led by CEO Mike Degiorgio, Crexi currently boasts over a half a million listings, and the Marina Del Rey-based company is hiring for a variety of positions as it continues to grow. 2021 saw the site close it’s largest ever deal when it sold a Las Vegas business park at auction for $205 million, setting a record for the largest single asset sale in an online transaction.
Founded in 2018, the El Segundo-based title and escrow company raised $150 million in October of 2022. As the name suggests, Endpoint offers tools for brokers, agents, and buyers to monitor the final stages of homebuying. The massive round of funding this fall was provided by First American Financial Corp. and brings Endpoint’s total funding to date northwards of $220 million. The company says its software has been used to close more than $2.5 billion of real estate transactions. The new funding will be used in part to hire 80 new jobs, bringing the company’s employee count close to 300.
RealtyMogul has been around since 2012, but the Los Angeles-based company has been picking up steam recently. RealtyMogul offers a crowdfunding real estate platform that lets ordinary people pool money and buy equity in properties across the United States. RealtyMogul has facilitated the investment of $3.5 billion on its platform, and in September, the company saw its users invest $10 million in less than 24 hours to fund the construction of a luxury high rise in Nashville, Tennessee. As the user count continues to grow beyond 200,000 investors, RealtyMogul is providing a way for individuals to pool their money and compete in markets that were once reserved for private equity giants.
Ylopo is a tool for real estate agents to win business with property owners looking to sell. The Santa Monica-based company helps agents generate, nurture and convert seller leads with a series of digital tools. Essentially a digital marketing assistant, the technology has thrived in the sellers market brought about by COVID. Ylopo–taken from the suffix of “monopoly” spelled backwards–has even attracted the attention of Facebook: In April of 2021, the social media giant named the digital marketing company part of its Top Providers Initiative, which essentially means that real estate agents using Ylopo will be given access to Facebook’s best marketing and ad partners.
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As the world emerged from the pandemic earlier this year, the well-off didn’t hold back on bookings at AvantStay Inc.’s high-end homes for family retreats or celebrating with friends.
While traditional hotel chains were decimated by a precipitous drop off in overnight stays, the West Hollywood-based staycation business is seeing booming times in many of its far-flung, short-term rental spots that are short drives from big metropolitan areas or in hidden Shangri-Las.
For instance, it offers luxury-living everywhere from California’s Paso Robles wine country, where a seven-bedroom home with four bathrooms and an Olympic-sized swimming pool rents for $2,765 a night, to $659 a night for a two-bedroom ocean view bungalow on Hawaii’s Oahu island.
These aren’t shacks, either.
The homes have everything from hot tubs and pools to fire pits and keyless entry for security. The average daily rate that travelers are willing to pay to stay at one of these mansions is $880, with groups of seven as the average number of guests – equating to $120 per person.
It’s comparable to staying in a four- or five-star hotel at a fraction of the price, said Sean Breuner, the company’s chief executive officer and co-founder. “It’s a much cheaper and affordable experience.”
Investor appetite in the niche is intense.
Swimply, a New York-based online marketplace for renting a private swimming pool as a form of staycation, raised $40 million in funding this week.
AvantStay CEO Sean Breuner
Some short-term rental firms also have gone public in recent months – including Sonder Corp., which runs a San Francisco-based boutique apartment-hotel hospitality company, and Vicasa, a Portland, Ore.-based international vacation rental management services business that went public on Dec. 7.
There’s a good chance that AvantStay will go the same route.
“Absolutely. I think going public is an option for us,” said Breuner in an interview.
This week, AvantStay raised $160 million in a Series B round of funding to help the platform decorate – called “kitting out” in industry parlance -- its palatial homes and list the properties owned by others to rent out for vacations or other short-term stays. It partnered with the 800-pound gorilla in the space, AirBnb Inc., as the short-term rental giant tries to diversify into other lines of business.
Tarsadia Investments and 3L Capital co-led the latest round, with participation also from previous backers Plus Capital, Bullpen Capital and Convivialite.
AvantStay’s rentals include a Who’s Who list of destination hotspots for globetrotters: ski-town Park City, Utah; luxurious skiing towns Breckenridge and Vail in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains; music night hotspot Austin, Texas; and coastal California beach cities for the rich and famous in Malibu and Newport Beach.
The company employs roughly 400, but expects to double or triple the size of the workforce over the next 18 months, and double the number of cities its homes are located from 100 to 200, according to Breuner.
“It’s a move in the direction where people want these large private spaces versus crowded hotels, and where they’re looking for a seamless travel experience,” Breuner said.
Jamie Lane, vice president of research with AirDNA, a Denver-based short-term rental data and analytics company, observed that travelers want to escape the crowds and not worry about catching the COVID-19 virus or wearing masks, he said.
“Most of these destination resorts are still getting their peak season revenue, which has been better than ever. We’re seeing them extend their seasonality so that they’re getting revenue over a much wider period, which makes these types of homes and rentals much more profitable,” Lane said.
“What we’ve seen is demand for short-term rentals has done better than anyone could ever have imagined,” he said.
“Overall, traditional hotels are still talking about getting back to 2019 levels,” added Lane, who noted that short-term rentals last month were 15% above levels seen two years ago.
The average daily rates for short-term rentals is roughly $248 a night, which is about 30.1% higher than November 2019’s average, he said.
“AvantStay’s markets are doing fine. They got lucky because they weren’t going after the urban markets,” said Lane, noting that the company is one of the few that has a national footprint.
He cited some in three short-term rental space that haven’t been so fortunate.
Lyric, a San Francisco-based short-term rental startup that raised $180 million from Airbnb and other investors, shut its doors in July 2020.
Washington-based Stay Alfred shut its doors in May 2020 and New York-based Domio, an apartment-hotel rental service catering to group travelers, closed down in November 2020.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled CEO Sean Breuner's name.
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Armed with nearly $3 million, a list of prominent investors and tens of thousands of users, the apartment rental platform PocketList looked like a startup poised to take off.
CEO and co-founder Nick Dazé touted the proptech software that let potential renters get an inside peek at apartments before being listed as technology that "turned the entire rental market on its head." He sold it as a way for landlords to save billions of dollars by cutting down turnover time between tenants and assured renters access to honest, up-to-date information about units before they went online.
Investors — who poured a record amount of money into seed startups last year — hardly needed convincing. Dazé closed a $2.8 million seed round last April led by David Sacks' Craft Ventures.
"It's no surprise that renters have flocked to the service," said angel investor Spencer Rascoff, co-founder of Zillow and dot.LA, in announcing the raise.
By July, PocketList had unveiled the app in Los Angeles with plans to launch in San Francisco and San Diego by the fall. Seattle, Chicago and New York were next.
Users could rate apartment features like natural lighting and parking in the neighborhood. There was a question and answer page for past tenants to field concerns and a chat function for landlords and prospective renters. The idea was to make renters feel like they had unvarnished insight into a unit, much the way Yelp lets users rate restaurants.
But the rollouts in new cities never came. Even before PocketList went live, renters across the country stopped signing new leases as the pandemic cast a pall over the economy. Landlords — now navigating eviction moratoriums and mounting bills — didn't have the money or the inclination to spend on new apps, Dazé said.
In the last week of April, the CEO and his co-founder Julian Vergel de Dios gave notice to eight remote employees and around 20 investors that the company would be closing operations for good.
"I spent from February until last week fundraising," Dazé told dot.LA during the first week of May. "The ultimate pause of us beginning to wind things down is that we struck out on fundraising and few very, very large customer deals we've been working on for several months fell through."
Dazé attributed PocketList's undoing to the declining renters' market and a reeling economy that kept many landlords from buying in. But in the world of venture deals, losses don't always mark the end of a company. It's the absence of investor faith.
"For a lot of seed investors, it's almost like buying lottery tickets," said UCLA Anderson School of Management professor Olav Sorenson.
"The odds of it paying off are low, but if it does pay off, you could make a lot of money," he said.
Investing capital in early-stage startups is risky and uncertain. It's nearly impossible to collect data on startups that fold given that most close shop quietly, according to Pitchbook spokesperson Kayla Gordon.
But, according to Sorenson, roughly half of all startups that raise seed money will close a Series A. The seed round supplies entrepreneurs with enough money to prove to investors their business can be successful.
That metric of success depends on investors. Most venture-backed companies in this stage don't turn a profit, but some can show enough potential for growth to entice investors back.
The Pandemic and Proptech
Investors' appetite for early-stage startups waned a bit last year, with these riskier companies pulling in $44 billion in capital compared to $47.1 billion in 2019, according to Pitchbook data.
It was a particularly rough year for proptech companies. The industry was hit harder than other parts of tech, such as ecommerce, which flourished during the pandemic as consumers moved online. Venture investments in real estate technology companies plummeted by half to $9.1 billion globally in 2020 compared to 2019, according to Pitchbook.
Most of that drop off came from flexible and co-working office spaces, said Pitchbook analyst Zane Carmean. The stay-at-home economy dried up demand for office rentals.
"A lot of that has to do with the fact that WeWork required a large injection of capital from Softbank and core investors after the failed IPO in 2019," Carmean said by email.
Other real estate tech startups kept their footing. Carmean pointed to a boom in housing demand from young coastal workers moving to the Midwest, South and Mountain West as remote working took hold.
Inside other real estate companies, though, research and development teams were the first to cut spending, said Marcelino Diaz, an analyst focused on proptech at Plug and Play Ventures. With the market dwindling, they didn't have spare cash to experiment with new technologies.
Instead, they were spending on tech that played into pandemic needs.
"Offices and retail were looking at how startups could come to help with sanitization, space optimization and most importantly, social distancing," Diaz said.
Investors backed startups like L.A.-based OpenPath for its touchless entry systems designed to reduce face-to-face contact inside office buildings and elevators. Diaz's firm invested in virtual and augmented reality startups like Avatour and Giraffe360, whose camera devices and software helped real estate managers move tours online. And he kept an eye on startups whose UV light technology promised cleaner, disinfected commercial spaces.
"It was a pivot in terms of where investments went," he said.
PocketList's founders anticipated their app would carve out its own spot in the changing market. But the demand for rental units in coastal cities — the platform's target audience — was shaky.
Pitching the Platform
In 2018, Dazé and Vergel de Dios were coming off 86 venture rejections for their startup Block, a Chrome extension for apartment hunters to sort and share listings with roommates. Dazé admitted the concept was tricky to explain, which he said, is "probably why it didn't work."
They scrapped the software and built a new prototype each month until landing on the idea for PocketList in July of 2019. In the early days, the co-founders operated the service manually through Google Forms and email, matching renters eyeing apartments in each other's neighborhoods.
"I was on my computer 24/7, three-year-old daughter climbing on my back," said Dazé, who was also consulting for Clutter, a storage and moving startup with offices in L.A. "You make it work."
Eventually, he told Clutter's CEO, Ari Mir, he was quitting the job to build his company full time. He asked Dazé for a demo and quickly became PocketList's first investor in its pre-seed round.
"Basically we raised about a million bucks that weekend," Dazé said.
Mir's investment "got the ball rolling" and a few investors who turned down the pitch for Block even chipped in. The pair soon pulled in a new roster of investors for a seed round about six months later: Abstract VC, Wonder Ventures and angel investor Rascoff.
User sign-ups and engagement had been almost doubling month over month and at its height, about 75,000 renters used the app. The platform was free for renters, instead relying on landlords to pay a fee to receive notifications about how often users listed their properties.
But by the time their funding round closed, it was mid-April of 2020 and the economy largely shut down as stay-at-home orders tightened.
"An incredibly prominent investor of ours who has a large audience — a day after lockdown — called me and scared the shit out of me," said Dazé. "He's like 'You need to batten down the hatches.'"
Dazé terminated the company's office lease in Playa Vista and cancelled software subscriptions. He cut monthly spending back by 30% without laying off a single employee.
"If we hadn't done that, we may have ultimately failed earlier," he said.
The company scrambled. It introduced paid features like instant messaging (which later became free) and experimented with new pricing models for landlords. Despite the changes, Dazé said, "every single interaction in our platform slowed down a lot."
He made the call to close the business after a series of rejections for his next funding round. A few undisclosed customers also pulled out of expected deals. On April 29, he and Vergel de Dios broke the news to their eight employees during a Zoom meeting. That afternoon, they emailed investors.
Craft Ventures and Wonder Ventures could not be reached for comment.
"Our bank account isn't at zero," Dazé said. "We're not shutting down shop in a panic because we're running out of money, but there's not enough money for us to do anything dramatic like pivot the company."
Though he would not disclose how much capital remains, Dazé told investors "not to expect anything" back. He'll distribute whatever remains based on the amount each investor contributed.
The CEO was tight lipped about his next moves, but hinted at a potential deal that may acquire the company's software. And he's confident new companies — if not members of his own team — will try their hand at a similar technology.
As for the proptech market, commercial real estate is already picking back up as companies forecast returning to the office. In L.A., leases hardly got cheaper over the past year.
"I consider this a timing issue, like most great failures," said Dazé.
He chalks most of it up to COVID-19. In a world without it, he said, "things would have turned out very differently."
Editor's note: An earlier version said Daze had been working for several weeks to strike a deal with customers, it in fact had been months. This article has also been updated to clarify the total amount raised.