Thinking About Going into Real Estate? Simply Clear Out Your Closet
Fall 2005: Chuck and Mario are freshman-year roommates at UCLA.
Winter 2007: Chuck gets ready to study abroad in Singapore; can't find affordable storage solutions.
Winter 2007: Chuck suggests idea of Homstie to Mario.
Winter 2007-Winter 2008: Chuck and Mario work copiously on business proposal, seek investors.
Hookup with the siblings Anna and Thor Andersen and bring Homstie to life.
Winter 2008/2009: Team launches Homstie.
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“Please step into our office,” says Chuck Gordon, welcoming me with an easy smile. With a hint of laughter in his eyes, this CEO and co-founder of the innovative online company, Homstie, leads me into the comfort of his Westwood apartment. We find Mario Feghali, the other brain behind this operation, resting on a plush green couch. Not your average day at the office, huh? But don’t judge this paperback by its cover. From within such an improvisational office, two creative UCLA students with a keen business sense followed their instincts, becoming certified entrepreneurs in the process. From behind MacBooks on dark-lacquered IKEA coffee tables, they have brought a novel idea to life: Homstie, the company that allows people to avoid overpriced storage units by finding affordable, local rental space for their belongings in a peer-to-peer way.
Though usually trite, old clichés sometimes get it right. In Homstie’s case, the generic aphorism, “Find a niche and fill it,” could not be more à propos. During his third year at UCLA, Chuck, who is from Washington, D.C., was preparing for a 10-month study-abroad program in Singapore. Amidst the excitement, he had one major dilemma: what to do with all of his stuff? He needed to store standard student belongings like a bed and mattress, couch, desk and heavy boxes of dusty academic books; as a talented art major, he also had numerous paintings and ceramics projects, including a giant rocket ship. Shipping everything across the country to his parents’ house was out of the question, and his dad instantly shut down the idea of paying $700 a month for a storage unit ($7,000 in total!). Now what? Inspiration struck while Chuck was trying to distribute his possessions among friends’ homes… how about a company that finds affordable and convenient non-traditional storage space and frees clients from the ridiculous prices of conventional storage units? Many people have an extra closet, some extra drawers or a hole in the wall that can fit a few books. Why not make use of these vacant spaces and actually help everyone out?
Chuck presented the idea to his roommate, Mario, who quickly recognized the potential for something big. They immediately began significant research and developed an extensive business proposal. “What we do is sell safety and security,” says Mario, a psychobiology major. “We draft lease agreements so that both parties are legally protected. It’s on paper; that makes people feel comfortable.” Furthermore, a peer-review system keeps renters accountable and tenants willing to rent. “It’s remarkable what unconditional trust people express when a service or product is rated by others,” notes Chuck.
Backed by a solid plan, Homstie was ready to convincingly sell its idea to investors; according to Chuck and Mario, this is the key to making or breaking any idea. “The money is out there, you just have to convince those who have it to give it to your idea,” muses Chuck. Successful persuasion efforts gained funding to get Homstie off the ground; by buying a domain name, Chuck and Mario finally launched it into virtual existence.
Designing and operating the site followed. “The real deal for getting a website operational requires finding a good programmer, unless you’re a programmer yourself,” advises Chuck. Thor Andersen was their man. He joined the project because his sister, Anna, was one of the other original Homstie contributors; now he’s fully involved, having created a site both aesthetic and easy to navigate.
Now the clients roll in, which is no surprise considering that the boys at Homstie know how to spread the word. “People aren’t going to come to you; you have to get your own name out there,” says Mario, who utilizes social networks like Facebook and email contact lists to market the company. He even contacted UCLA’s newspaper, the Daily Bruin, which gave Homstie a front-page feature.
All excitement aside, any start-up enterprise is hard work. When asked about how many hours they put in weekly, Chuck and Mario looked at each other and laughed. “A better question is, ‘How many hours am I not doing this?’ to which the answer is the hours I’m in school,” says Mario. It’s an all-consuming job, no doubt. But on the flip side, beginning a company allows one to improvise and call all the shots; there is no corporate ladder to climb. In the untapped industry of alternative storage, Chuck and Mario—ever optimistic—make things up as they go, without established protocol. “Don’t get discouraged,” they advise. “It’s easy to find problems; it’s more difficult to find solutions. You need to find those solutions, and you will. Just make sure to hire the best people; you need go-getters dedicated to your success.”
Success. An interesting concept if you figure that eight out of 10 of start-ups fold. You must believe in what you’re doing, Chuck says. “Embrace your idea; believe in your dream, in your success, and try, even though the odds are against you.” And if things don’t work out? “You can still always put CEO on your résumé,” he responds with a laugh.
Whatever the odds, my money’s on Homstie.