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Lessons on Midwest growth from Chicago’s Avail

Avail is a digital platform that helps landlords and renters save time and money through simplifying and automating the entire rental process, including listings, tenant screening, contracts, payments, and maintenance.

“When my co-founder and I started the company five years ago, we build the product to meet the needs we had ourselves,” says Ryan Coon, Avail CEO. “To manage our properties, we were using antiquated tools like pen and paper, Excel Spreadsheets and paper rent checks. We decided that landlords like us need a better way to manage our rentals.”

Since then, Chicago-based Avail has reached over 70,000 independent landlords across the country. Through the course of their growth, they’ve learned valuable lessons about scaling across the Midwest that other Silicon Prairie startups could benefit from.

Know your customer

Coon and co-founder Laurence Jankelow initially designed and built the Avail platform for individual property owners like themselves who were full-time professionals and part-time landlords.

“What we found was that the Midwest had a lot of people who fit this profile,” says Coon. “Whereas markets on the coasts have more institutionally-owned rental properties, the bulk of rentals in the Midwest are owned by individuals like us.”

Create localized content

But since the Midwest is such a broad region and rental rules, regulations and processes can vary on a state-by-state basis, Coon and Jankelow focused on creating very specific and localized content to meet the needs of landlords in different markets.

“We invested time, money and resources into creating a different lease template for each state and a lot of the big major cities,” says Coon. “On our platform today, we offer leases that are tailored for all fifty states and guides that help landlords understand the rules in those states and local communities. We found that it’s been key for us to create content that is local and valuable to them.”

Identify key markets

Coon says that they kept an eye on certain markets that emerged with high adoption rates.

“We’ve seen a lot of adoption of our platform in the Midwest in cities like Kansas City and St. Louis,” says Coon. “People from those markets aren’t just signing up and creating accounts to test it out, they’re actually using our platform.”

Those locations then became obvious targets for marketing efforts.

“We’ve targeted a lot of our online advertising on Google and Facebook to those specific markets,” says Coon. “We’ve also had a lot of good, organic word of mouth growth in those departments as well.”

Create a network

Coon says that marketing wasn’t without its challenges, though. Part-time landlords with full-time jobs are hard to reach in general.

Avail struck a partnership with State Farm to get their platform in front of landlords through a new channel in markets that they were already targeting.

“State Farm sells insurance to a lot of these landlords across the country but even more so in the Midwest,” says Coon. “State Farm has been a great partner to us in terms of distributing our product to those landlords.”

Finding capital through a network of Midwest investors was also important for Avail. Their last round of funding was led by St. Louis’s Cultivation Capital.

“It was important for us to find an investor who understood the problem that we were solving,” says Coon. “We spoke with investors in New York, the bay area, and even in Chicago, and because investors in those cities see these big [professionally managed properties], they didn’t even believe that part-time landlords exist.”

Leverage the Midwest

Coon says that founders in the Midwest have unique advantages over traditional hubs like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York when it comes to solving the region’s problems.

“A lot of economic activity happens in the Midwest,” says Coon. “There’s also the Midwest work ethic that I don’t think can be discounted.”

“I think being in the Midwest, we just understand the problems that real individuals are facing and we aren’t building these lofty tech platforms that don’t actually solve a real need,” says Coon. “Tech startups in the Midwest are unique in that they are able to solve the problems of people in the Midwest in ways that the coasts can’t.”

Coon says that the success of startups in the region really comes down to the combination of three things.

“Midwest problems, Midwest solutions, Midwest capital. Those three things can come together and do a lot of great things.”

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Christine McGuigan is the Managing Editor of Silicon Prairie News.

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