Tale of a technology innovator

  • By Wendy Broffman
  • Published August 2016

dot.com boom soon hit and the Internet took off. AllApartments.com changed its name to SpringStreet in the late 90's, merged with Realtor.com and went public in 1999 under the name HomeStore.com. Today, it is called Move.com, a subsidiary of NewsCorp, and trades on the NASDAQ under the symbol MOVE.

"Typing in AllApartments.com will still take you to listings on Move.com, 20 years later," said Mueller.

Believing he had no place in a huge corporate environment after the IPO, Mueller took a six-month hiatus. While speaking at a ULI conference in Minneapolis about the future of apartment leasing, he told the audience that it was only a matter of time before the apartment industry, like the airline, car rental and hotel industries, would be able to offer renters and investors access to online real-time pricing and availability.

He was approached after his talk by a number of apartment owners who suggested he should be the person to make that idea a reality.

So Mueller reassembled his group of tech specialists in November 2002, founded Realty DataTrust and went about creating technology that, once the software was downloaded at an apartment property, it would automatically upload that property's pricing and availability to a centralized server.

He imagined an application like Napster-the first music sharing service-for the apartment industry.

Mueller and his team would then load that information into a database and make it accessible to the consumer by adding a clickable 'Check Availability' button on any website.

"When you would hit that button, it would actually show you what was available in real time, because we had grabbed the info from the little stand alone PC sitting at the property office and put it into the centralized database and that made it accessible via the Web.

"That process took a number of years to properly get traction, but I knew it would happen because I thought it was a no-brainer, since you could get airline, hotel, and rental car pricing in real-time. It's what the customer experience should look like and I'm still shocked 14 years later that the ILS industry still thinks the customer will fill out a form to get this information," he said.

The product his team created was named VaultWare and, by 2011, over 4,000 plus apartment properties were using VaultWare's online reservation system that allowed potential renters to see actual pricing and availability. With a self-screening option, potential renters could find out in seconds if they were qualified, because VaultWare had partnered with all the credit screening companies. Until VaultWare, the only way to run a credit check was for the leasing agent at the property to run the report.

One of the spinoffs of VaultWare was PadZing, the first online market survey tool for owners and managers to compare market rental rates against their market comparables. It also was the first apartment industry product developed specifically for the iPad.

"Almost five years later, a lot of companies are still using VaultWare's system, because I sold that company to MRI in December 2011," said Mueller, who went on to purchase the multifamily division of CallSource and launch LeaseHawk in February 2012, where he has worked quietly behind the scenes to rebuild the platform that could shake the leasing side of the multifamily business to its very core.

In addition to CallSource's multifamily division, Mueller also acquired an education division, which he entirely revamped into a leading provider of online education and learning management for the apartment industry. In 2014, Mueller sold LeaseHawk's Wings and PLU Learning Management Systems, along with its catalog of online educational courses, to Grace Hill, based in Augusta, Georgia.

Going dark
Mueller bought CallSource with the idea of merging their telephone technologies, like call tracking, with the email inbox in leasing offices, adding in tools like Skype with Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) capabilities, throwing in the ability to text customers, and make it all accessible with an application similar to Salesforce.com, a customer relationship management (CRM) app, but gear it specifically for the apartment industry. This was a very ambitious goal, especially when every inbound and outbound communication is stored in the Cloud and made accessible via a mobile or desktop device, Mueller explained, adding that this simple, easy-to-use solution is LeaseHawk, the first communications platform for the apartment industry.

Mueller had a clear vision when he purchased CallSource, a company that has continuously produced revenue in the eight digits, but the technologies he needed weren't fully developed, so he and his team had to move slowly. The first piece LeaseHawk needed to develop was a robust back-end so that every single phone call, inbound and outbound, got routed, recorded and stored in the Cloud.

"It had to be 100 percent reliable, meaning it had to work 24/7/365. It's very similar to what Twilio, a company that just went public, does," Mueller said.

The next challenge was to develop a CRM program that would work on a mobile device, "because our industry does a terrible job of managing the relationship with their customer. If you look at the lifecycle of the relationship, it starts as a 'lead' and we never really give any thought to that relationship once they become a resident," said Mueller, explaining that LeaseHawk's CRM has now evolved from the first beta, which was completed about a year and a half ago.

"If you think about it, there are multiple types of communications you will have with your customer throughout their rental history, which could be years in this environment, since renting is a lifestyle choice," he said.

Mueller's epiphany
But looking back five years, when MRI approached Mueller to buy Vaultware, he wasn't motivated to sell because a new technology had just emerged that would allow him to bring his 1995 vision full circle.

Apple introduced Siri in October 2011 and to Mueller it was an epiphany.

"As soon as Siri came out, I said, 'This is the future of apartment leasing. You're going to get everything you want to know about an apartment by asking an intelligent assistant using a voice interface. It won't be limited to just leasing either, but lease payments, renewals, maintenance, etc. Look at how quickly Amazon's Alexa voice interface has evolved," he said.

Siri changed the way users thought about interacting with their smartphones and was a huge incentive for Mueller's acquisition of CallSource, which would provide the telephony technology piece he needed to merge with a Siri-like front end.

Siri allows the user to ask questions and receive answers simply by tapping the Home button on the phone face and using their voice.

But Mueller realized that the small size of a mobile screen made typing to obtain information impractical and that people would opt to call to get their information whenever possible. Thumb typing to fill out a "Check Availability" form on a mobile device just won't happen, Mueller believes.

"Five years ago, when you would hit 'call' from your smartphone you would typically be calling the property from an Internet ad source that would connect to CallSource's back-end phone switch. We would then route the call to the property and record the call. Well, the problem with today's caller's expectation is they expect someone to pick up the phone after four or five rings no matter the time of day. Nothing has really changed in the 20-plus years the industry has been tracking and recording calls. What blows me away is 49 percent of the time no one at the property picks up the phone, leaving the caller frustrated and rarely leaving a message," said Mueller.

The revolution will be virtual
In addition to the communications platform and CRM application, Mueller has created a virtual leasing agent with the ability to answer every phone call made to the property, intelligently ask and answer questions and even set up appointments, then record, transcribe and store the communication in the Cloud.

As this revolutionary technology evolves, machine-learning technologies will crunch these communications and interactions and create a leasing score similar to a FICO credit score, he predicted.

"Who is your best lead? Who is your best resident? And all this will be done objectively to avoid fair housing issues," he said.

Mueller believes LeaseHawk's technology solutions are the game changers the industry has been waiting for, but notes there are still a number of hurdles to clear.

"Our biggest hurdle, however, is not the technology, but the people who are afraid of change. Sometimes it's the leasing agent, because they might view their job as replaceable by technology, since most of what they do is now automated, like lease payments and renewals. However, the most threatened group by these technologies will be the ILSs, since total transparency is available from first communication until it turns into a lease.

"The holy grail of lease ad source attribution will finally be solved. Property owners will be able to accurately pinpoint if a lead is qualified or not and call, 'foul' if it isn't. Transparency also will apply to the leasing agent, whose performance will be instantly accessible. Their ability and timeliness to follow up will be automatically time and date stamped, as will their ability to close a lead to a lease. Imagine every leasing agent in your company automatically measured by their closing ratio," Mueller said.

It will be interesting to see the affects of true disruption on the apartment