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Who *we* think should have won the iOi Pitch Battle this year

(TECHNOLOGY) At this year’s iOi Pitch Battle, a very cool, sexy brand won, and while we applaud them, there was a hidden gem that should have won!

nar ioi pitch battle

Congratulations to Feather, the winner of the 2021 iOi Pitch Battle, put on by the National Association of Realtors. Their sexy furniture and decor rental startup stands to be a household name in short order, and they absolutely deserve the $15,000 giant check they were presented on stage, but perhaps there was someone who tied for first? Before we share with you who we think that is, let’s introduce you to the Pitch Battle and to all of the finalists.

Pitch competitions typically pit startups against each other for a cash prize, but they all benefit from getting in front of an audience that might either invest or use their product. The iOi Pitch Battle put a dozen startups on stage, each introduced themselves to bright lights, loud and enthusiastic music, all to a boxing theme (professional photos of them with dukes up). Clever.

I’ve judged dozens of pitch competitions and demo days in the tech sector so it was hard not to scream questions from the audience, but I had pretty strong feelings about each startup. That’s a great sign, as apathy about any competitor is an indicator of a weak lineup – that was not the case here. The competitors came from all sorts of backgrounds, even a West Point grad and a law enforcement officer turned Realtor, all seeking to improve the real estate industry in various ways. They each had four minutes to pitch, and roughly four minutes to answer questions from the expert judges.

Let’s get to know each finalist:

Here they are in order of their appearance on stage (so you won’t know who our pick is quite yet), and the italics are their pitch on the iOi website, followed by our takeaways from their pitches:

  1. Docitt“Docitt examines a consumer’s debts and credit to orchestrate the optimal credit profile and the best integrated and actionable (financial) solution to improve the consumer’s purchasing power.” On stage, they noted that consumers are being denied for loans they shouldn’t be, and asserts it is $30B in lost commissions for agents. They say traditional lending has failed because of the limiting underwriting process. The goal is to unify a bigger picture of a consumer’s financial situation and make the decision “actionable.” We thought this concept was so important in today’s world of otherwise “credit invisible” consumers that shouldn’t be, but we would have asked more about the company’s inspiration to dig into who they are rather than a startup with dollars in their eyes, seeing expansion opportunities across student and auto loans as well. The short timeframe limited their pitch, but I needed a story of nobility to buy into this concept. Lame, but true. I’m a sucker for a good story!
  2. Parafin“Parafin is a cloud-based design platform for real estate developers to instantly generate building designs, budgets, and proformas for their next construction project.” Their brief demo showed how a hotelier, for example, could plug in an address, then flip through the 3D prototypes overlaid onto the exact property and immediately know not only visual fit, but budget and financial models, all in real time. They plan to service the multifamily sector next, then student housing going forward. It was a pretty phenomenal concept and one that we suspect will probably get acquired by a larger brand like CoStar given the limits on how a small team could scale something so ambitious.
  3. Renter Mentor“Renter Mentor is a platform that provides a centralized, secure, and automated way to list, manage, and find affordable housing.” This startup noted that there is a 10M unit shortage of affordable housing and over 500k homeless in America because of an overly complex system that lacks a centralized platform. After his time at a housing agency, it became the founder’s “personal mission” to take action, so Renter Mentor is a platform for finding, listing, and managing affordable housing units. They collect and sell data, and charge software subscriptions to agencies and property owners. The reason this noble startup didn’t win is that the judges (per their questions) could tell it was more of a statewide startup than national, but with the right team and mentors in place, a state program with strong roots is still investment worthy, but could do better by dominating pitch sessions for social good startups as a NPO that could then grow nationally.
  4. Milestones“Milestones is a customer-experience platform for buying, selling, and managing home ownership—provided by real estate professionals to their clients.” Lemme tell ya – the founder of this company came out strong and is clearly a seriously good salesperson (the crowd went wild, no kidding). Her pitch was simply that this is a platform wherein a broker can monetize all ancillary services in a RESPA compliant way (that could have been the entire pitch and it would have had buy-in). From lead to long-term relationships, the startup’s goal is to reduce the effort of relationship management and it already has 8k agents onboarded. Slick sales pitch aside, we’re curious what was proprietary about the software or maybe what relationships they had that could surpass their competitors with market adoption. It’s one of those products that is so simple that if all agents were using it overnight, the industry would be better for it.
  5. Matrix“Matrix is a fintech digital application that provides deeper insight into credit profiles of would-be tenants by automating conditions and providing recommendations to landlords for rejected applicants.” They gather data from tenants (banking activity, tax history, credit analysis, employment verification, resident history) and claim to make it more usable for Realtors and landlords to process that data. They’ve created the “MAIA” score (an alternative lending score) based on that data and even uses computer vision to extract that data and detect fraud, then offers financial services. They really hit all of the magical talking points for 2021, and they pitched themselves as a rental application analysis platform, but what set them apart to us was their scoring which is a win for landlords and the industry, but also for more potential renters whose full credit picture isn’t depicted by the outdated FICO scoring system.
  6. Hospiria by Under the Doormat Group – “UnderTheDoormat Group is a business professionalizing the short-term rental industry and transforming both the property and hospitality industries with three unique products.” Okay… that doesn’t have much to do with what their pitch was on stage, but let’s proceed anyhow! Hospiria aims to address some shortfalls in short term rentals (STRs), noting that several organizations are missing out on the benefits of STRs, so they manage the process and get the listing out to all of the major aggregators. They offer three tiers of service and even a consultancy service to manage a listing for a property owner. They take reservations, payments, and so forth. They say they’re popular in the UK, and to us it appeared like more of a clever lead gen company for STR owners than anything (nothing wrong with that, it just wasn’t the pitch on stage). To be fair, I’m always highly skeptical of any bleeding of STRs into multifamily because of the potential fair housing implications. This one was kind of all over the place, so I’ll look forward to seeing their progress in a year or so and how they refine their model!
  7. Restb.ai“Restb.ai’s suite of AI-powered solutions enable real estate companies to instantly extract insights (room type, home features, styles and condition analysis, and more) from their property imagery.” The example they used was this: Imagine being able to tell with data how a listing’s curb appeal compares to the neighbors’. Heads nodded “ooh, yes” across the room. The founder asserted that 1 million property photos are uploaded daily. That’s a lot of data not being used. Using computer vision (a keyword flaunted throughout the entire iOi event, so keep an eye on it), aka AI’s ability to understand the content of a photo, clients can reduce man-hours and reduce risk. Color us impressed at the next generation concept akin to when Google Analytics launched so site owners could actually capitalize on the data that was just sitting there unused all along. Our only concern is how their Terms of Service will address ownership of uploaded/used photos (it’s an ongoing problem in the industry, and they’ll need to address this head on).
  8. Otso“Otso provides A-rated insurance coverage for lease security, an alternative to traditional cash deposits and letters of credit, which provides landlords increased protection against default.” They note that $250B is in locked capital at any given time, and that “deal costs greatly outweigh securitization,” and that “collecting collateral is difficult.” They claim they can get up to $100,000 approved in minutes. Tenants sign up online, Otso decides that day. They announced on stage that they’ve just partnered with a $2.5B insurance carrier backing their policy so they can now offer coverage up to $500K. This was a rare “duh” moment for us, and it was suddenly difficult to remember a world just moments before learning about Otso, where the stakes were too high for commercial real estate. The timing is so relevant for their launch as the sector struggles more than almost any other in America, and reducing those barriers can bring companies back into the fold that might otherwise have sat on the sidelines.
  9. Zipi“Zipi reimagines a fractured system to easily facilitate and transact real estate with their back office, accounting and digital payment offerings.” This was another with an enthusiastic founder who is a real estate practitioner with badass sales skills. He passionately explained that there is no standardization to running a brokerage, and with his industry-proven standards, he was able to increase productivity in his two top-tier KW franchises. With Zipi, brokers are offered transparency to their accounting from start to finish, and they don’t charge for their open API in hopes that others come build on their platform. We always love startups that come from within the industry to solve a problem they understand so extremely well. Simultaneously, we worry that it’s a saturated sector and wondered what’s to stop a large brokerage like KW from just doing this themselves.
  10. Remarkably “Remarkably is a marketing and business intelligence platform that aggregates disparate marketing and leasing data, monitors and analyzes performance, forecasts future trends, and more.” Their founder announced that $10B is spent annually on advertising in the multifamily sector, with $5B wasted. This is the first multifamily business intelligence (BI) solution. Users get machine learning (ML) powered alerts with leading indicators instead of lagging. The idea is to use AI insights with data converted into a UX that non-technologists can easily understand, even offering goal modeling for better forecasting. For anyone who has ever spent time at a larger multi-family brand, this is pretty exciting in that it ties in to their existing rent rolls and marketing tools – those aren’t typically married. Very cool!
  11. HighNote.io “HighNote Labs is a sales pitching platform that streamlines the sales pitch process for agents listing presentations, offers, new buyers, and agent recruiting.” This pitch was popular with the audience of investors and technologists – it’s basically a customizable sales pitch to send leads to which supports images and videos, and churns out analytics for users beyond the standard (including how long they’re reading what content, etc. which is standard for a site, not standard for an app for your listing presentation and so forth). Lots of well known names in real estate were flashed on the screen as users. It was one hell of a sales tool, but to us, it felt like a sophisticated plug and play Wix for Realtors, so I wonder how the industry (not just me, a known jerk) will perceive it, given that it’s slick and a pretty tight offering.
  12. Feather“Feather is the next-generation furniture and home decor rental service that makes it possible for people to find beautiful furniture quickly, without the upfront cost and commitment of traditional retail.” Basically it’s CORT, but not ugly as hell (all our words, not theirs). It’s really sexy furniture and decor – the founder noted that furniture is the third largest asset class and combined with the nomadic nature of younger generations, their offering has already earned them $60M in venture capital from prominent firms in the VC world. They’ve taken on the very expensive and complicated task not only of warehousing massive amounts of product, but reverse engineering the technical delivery management process. The application to this audience was home staging. I loved the company, but in the context of this particular pitch competition, I felt like it was a stretch as an ancillary product and I was a little pissy that they’d already earned millions in funding when a few of these startups were smaller outfits in need of the injection of funds and exposure. Still cool, though!

After the competition, before the winner was announced, we spoke to investors in the audience.

It’s no surprise that there was no unanimous winner between them, but as we spoke to each one on one, what was clear is that the priority was investing in teams. The pitch was almost secondary. Yet another concept that wasn’t surprising.

Investors don’t just invest in an idea, a product, they’re focused on the founding team and their processes, their differentiators. Many were drawn to Milestone and HighNote which tells me there’s still tons of money and attention left in the till for agent-focused products.

We also spoke to a few technologists whose preferred winners were inconsistent with only Remarkably and Restb.ai standing out. But this specific panel of judges chose Feather (which we did not for reasons mentioned in the blurb above about them).

Our chosen winner is…

This was an impossible choice, because we are most rooting for Renter Mentor to thrive, as they could have such a meaningful and deep impact, and if we only had $100 dollars left to our name and had to invest it, we’d choose Otso.

But remembering that the conference (and therefore the Pitch Battle) was focused on tech innovation, we felt that Restb.ai should have won.

What they’re talking about doing with AI to harvest billions of data points from a gajillion existing photos is pretty mind blowing, and it feels so relevant to this moment in time. It’s like we’re watching website analytics be born – if they can corner this segment of the market and dominate before saturation hits, they’re going to be a serious player in the industry, both residential and construction.

So congrats to Feather, but also congrats to Restb.ai which wins exactly zero dollars from us, but if they run this startup well (which we believe they will), they will be a ubiquitous brand very soon.

restb.ai on stage

Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

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