Help Ben take on landlords

Ben Sacks has a big idea, $25,000 to spend on it and a strong network of advisers. But he’s still searching for the right web developer to help him build and launch Stable Renters, a service that will gather data on landlords. Does the “do good” tone to Ben’s business make it unattractive to coders? Or has Ben simply stumbled into a startup challenge that every good founder needs to solve? For another perspective on how to find the technical yin to your idea yang, see: Please, please, please stop asking how to find a technical co-founder

By Ben Sacks
What a kick in the pants! The We Media Pitchit! Challenge really got me to start moving. Not only did I have a chunk of equity-free change to start building with, We Media introduced me to some seriously knowledgeable people.

Everyone pushed me to move as fast as possible towards launching the product in some form. I shouldn’t worry about getting set up with a corporate structure, planning for the project to be larger than it has to be at first, or even soliciting additional investment (if I don’t need it yet) until I get public buy-in in the form of real usage. “Your users know more than you do,” one person said to me. “They’ll even tell you what you want to hear if you just give them a place to say it.”

Stable Renters was pretty hard to think about in minimal terms. Virtually everyone I speak to has a new idea for where it can go. But it has at least one unique aspect: it uses specialized data that few others have endeavored to leverage. If it turns out that no one cares how well buildings are managed, then I’ll know I need to come up with something new.

So not long after I wandered through the train with an enormous check, wondering if I could exchange it at a check-cashing store, my goal became to hold down the fulltime day job and get a lead developer to launch something by the fall.

But it’s been two months since then, and I’m still looking for that developer. Yes I’ve advertized on Craigslist, related Meetup groups and at university departments, and I told everyone I know that I’m looking. But while Scott Heiferman (@heif) celebrated the flourishing of NYC’s startup scene at the New York Tech Meetup last month, a professor in a local CS department sent me a form email (literally said, “Dear So and So”), basically telling me that there were no students that would fit my unmentioned criteria.

And yes, I have met developers. “Oh yeah? What languages do you work in?” I often ask. “Everything, really everything” is my least favorite answer, especially when it’s followed by, “Oh, no, not Python. Not MongoDB.” But while some have presented the right technical capabilities, it seems that many in the startup world don’t care about the social benefit, about media innovation, about real impact. I hear far too often that all these good things must come with a financial drawback. And yet, few question Stable Renters’ profitability. Entrepreneurs don’t let that stop them for some reason. But many think that this revenue model’s inherent social value will hold the company back.

I should note that the terms of employment have almost never come up in these conversations. I’ve been quite flexible as to whether the position would begin on a roadmap to co-foundership, would remain as lead developer, or gain differing amounts of equity as the work progresses. Virtually all of this is on the table in some form. And in only one case did the terms offered actually raise an objection, one that was quickly rectified. In even this case, it seems as though the concept of doing good in exchange for money gives entrepreneurs the willies.

So I want to take a moment to talk about social entrepreneurship. While definitions abound, examples of the phenomenon can be found in almost any industry. And this is where I begin to disagree with the naysayers. In a society with no banks, lending money for just about any purpose could arguably be social entrepreneurship. A society without access to capital means that risk takers can rarely seize opportunities, and that the needed and possible improvements to the public good will go unrealized. Banks fill a real need.

So if banking counts, then what are developers afraid of? If you question profitability, fine. But don’t let good will scare you away. Banks do their job, they make money. We do our job, which happens to do something good, and we make money.

Work for me. We’ll make money and feel good about it. And as long as even one landlord continues to contemplate stiffing a tenant, we’ll never need a bailout.

Photo by Shayan.

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