From Greentown to Beantown Disruption: An Intern’s Story

This week, former Greentown employee Devon Grodkiewicz shared his journey from being Greentown Labs’ first Northeastern University cooperative intern to his current foray in entrepreneurship working to disrupt the apartment rental industry with a new type of online marketplace.

Since leaving Greentown Labs almost exactly two years ago, I have pivoted (Did I just use the dreaded word?) from one business model to the next in an effort to pursue an entrepreneurial passion. A passion born from the experience and time I spent working in the Greentown Labs community.

Devon Blog Post
Devon as the first coop for Greentown Labs

From the brief six months I worked with the team, I had the opportunity to help grow a startup incubator–a startup in and of itself– from  a small coworking space in Fort Point to the largest cleantech incubator in the country. In this new space I found myself wandering the shop floor and exploring the latest innovations in wind, water, agriculture, and robotics technologies. It was here, along the “yellow brick road” separating each startups lab space, that I watched the ushering of the next age of sustainable entrepreneurship.

For a short time, the leaders of these ventures became my mentors, sharing with me the trials, tribulations, and historic achievements their startups experienced. It became routine for me to sit in on Greentown Labs’s weekly Lunch & Learns which provided me with a foundational background in many aspects of a startup’s legal and business concerns. During coffee breaks I would catnap in Rise Robotics’ plush and massive pillow couch, listening to the low hum of 3D printers next door and the chatter of Altaeros engineers bringing airborne wind turbines from concept to creation.

Hardware Incubator
Greentown Labs is now home to over 45 energy and cleantech startups focused on hardware in Somerville, MA

My time at Greentown Labs came and went faster than a Massachusetts summer but left me with a fiery passion for entrepreneurship. Over the next year and a half I worked on several concepts, none of which would make it beyond initial market research. Why? Because I had developed ideas that failed to identify with my market’s pain points. An experience many entrepreneurs face, leading to an iterative process of business model redesign or going back to the drawing board for a complete overhaul of the business concept.

This process, moving from one business concept to the next would continue until January  2015 when I committed to working with a small team of software engineers to bring transparency to the apartment market. How did we settle on this? Each of us had uniquely negative experiences with our apartment hunt and ensuing tenancy. We thought we had solved the problem, creating the “Yelp for apartments and landlords,” and subsequently winning our on-campus startup competition, Husky Startup Challenge, this past Spring.

We joined our university’s on-campus student accelerator, IDEA. In transitioning through each of IDEA’s “stages” for ventures, we recognized that the market research we had performed did not match with the pain points prospective tenants were experiencing. Only half of all tenants have a negative apartment living experience, a big number to be sure, but only a small fraction of these individuals felt inclined to share their experience on a platform like the one we had created. We had to find a bigger problem, one that more tenants could identify with and act on, so we did what any half-decent team of entrepreneurs should do: we took our website offline and decided to invest a large amount of time in market research.

We found that more than 80% of tenants are spending roughly 8% of the cost of their lease to simply move into the apartment. This cost was in large part due to the realtor’s fee, a fee incurred because someone opened a few doors and printed out documents readily available online for tenants to sign. With almost 60% of tenants in Boston burdened by unaffordable rent, how could it be reasonable for almost all of them to spend 8% of their living expenses just to sign the dotted line and move in?

It was now mid-summer, our team had identified a problem we could address with a simple solution: automating the role realtors play and creating a race to the bottom for signing fees via an online apartment market place. We called it Wizio.

The next step was finding a way to collect unbiased information from individuals that have no vested interest in selling the apartment to prospective tenants. Without going in and collecting the information ourselves there is only one other individual we could rely on, the current tenant. We developed a model where, in exchange for the data they had from their personal experience, we can guarantee a fee-free apartment search.

This leads us to where we are today, last weekend we launched a beta allowing us to test apartment search features and collect tenant data, kickstarting this launch was a great Bostinno article. In January, we will launch our full service, in the meantime, take a look at the fruits of our labor and leave us feedback.

The months leading to this point have felt long and weary, but I know that this is just the beginning. Without my constant exposure to the entrepreneurial hub that is Greentown Labs I do not think I would have made it this far.

Greentown Labs Intern

To Emily, Liz, and those startups that I grew to love within the community, I thank you for your knowledge-sharing.

See you at a future EnergyBar.

Devon Grodkiewicz