App from UW-Madison spinoff puts live help for apartment search in your hand

October 19, 2015 By David Tenenbaum

A Madison startup created in 2012 soon after two Wisconsin natives graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison is introducing the first free “personal assistant” to aid renters in the difficult search for a new apartment.

“Search for Me,” is the latest innovation from ABODO, which maintains a searchable database of more than 1 million rentals in 30 cities.

ABODO’s focus on finding apartments was a natural outgrowth of the founders’ college experiences, says CEO & co-founder Alec Slocum, who moved five times while getting a double major in philosophy and legal studies at UW–Madison.

 

“Search for Me” provides free access to a real person who knows the area the apartment hunter is searching.

Images courtesy of ABODO.com

“Moving is one of the most psychologically stressful events in life, and the process of finding a new home should be streamlined and smooth. At its best, it should be interesting, fun. You are finding a new place, a new neighborhood.”

Last week, ABODO and the UW–Madison Campus and Visitor Relations office began to apply the new technology to an office that has long helped students, faculty and staff find rentals. Although the back end will use ABODO’s searching and sorting mechanism, “the site will have the look and feel of UW–Madison,” says Campus and Visitor Relations director Steve Amundson.

Slocum goes way back with his two co-founders, UW–Madison computer science alum Adam Olien, and Chad Aldous, who graduated from The Art Institutes International Minnesota. “We grew up in New Richmond (Wisconsin) and have known each other our whole lives,” he says.

Within months after Slocum and Olien graduated in 2010, the trio had settled on housing search for a new business. “The search process is the first problem of moving,” Slocum says. “Our part is to eliminate the stress and anxiety, and make it a process that people don’t have to dread. We make sure that what is available is very searchable (and) accessible in a smooth, streamlined way.”

“The process of finding a new home should be streamlined and smooth. At its best, it should be interesting, fun. ”

Alec Slocum

Since it rolled out on the Web as MoveInMadison.com in fall 2012, ABODO has branched out to serve 30 small- to mid-size cities around the nation.

The new smartphone app, available for iOS and Android, gives “the option to initiate a free conversation with an ABODO assistant,” Slocum says. “Tell us by chat what you want: say a one bedroom in this neighborhood in this price range that allows dogs. We won’t only look at ABODO, but also check hundreds of other websites for you. We’ll verify property availability, and return with at least five results. We’ll even help schedule a showing for you if you’d like, and shepherd you through as much of the leasing process as you want.”

Photo: Mockup of ABODO on cellphone

Renters pay nothing to use ABODO; the company receives fee income from the property manager for each referral.

The assistant, Slocum emphasizes, “is a real person who knows way too much about that city, its neighborhoods, its properties. In many cities, they charge up to one month’s rent for this. We have the data, so why would we not want to do this? It gets at the mission of the company.” Search for Me is now available in Madison and other selected markets.

Renters pay nothing to use ABODO; the company receives fee income from the property manager for each referral. ABODO has 25 employees, including 18 full-time, and has offices on West Main Street in downtown Madison.

Slocum says the company’s competition originated in paper-based systems, and they are so expensive that property managers list only a fraction of their inventory.

“Even if it’s not curing cancer, finding a home is a serious part of people’s lives, and we treat it as such.”

Alec Slocum

“With our competitors, it’s the equivalent of Google only displaying paid listings, so a searcher only sees sites that can afford the listing. So renters don’t see everything that’s available, and they have to walk around neighborhoods, calling numbers on for-rent signs, or going to Craigslist,” Slocum says.

ABODO’s system gives managers an incentive to list everything they have.

Three years after it began, ABODO has had about 1.5 million users. “Now we want to be national, but that means we have to scale the organization,” Slocum says. “Recruiting employees is important, but making sure you are building a place for employees to grow is the most important thing. We need to learn from people who have been there, make fewer and smaller mistakes, shrink the learning curve.”

The company has no plans to leave Madison, Slocum adds. “We’ve been able to build a great team, and have great capital backing us here.”

Other enhancements may follow, including a streamlined rent payment process, and virtual-reality apartment tours. “Our job is to take things that are hard and make them easy by enhancing them digitally,” he says. “Even if it’s not curing cancer, finding a home is a serious part of people’s lives, and we treat it as such.”