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Career 180: 'Hop'-ping into the real estate biz

Lee Lin for amNY career 180 story on

Lee Lin for amNY career 180 story on 2/3/14 (HANDOUT/RENTHOP) Credit: Lee Lin (Renthop)

Finding an apartment to rent in New York City can be tough. To help make it easier, in 2009, Lee Lin, 33, and his partners launched RentHop, a website that ranks roughly 85,000 New York rental apartment listings according to quality.

Lin, who lives in midtown, was a software engineer at Microsoft for three years before crossing over to a Manhattan-based quantitative hedge fund from February 2007 through June 2009.

RentHop, which launched in July 2009, started as a “nights-and- weekends project,” Lin said, and its revenue is now growing by 300% per year. Though the site is based in New York, Lin and his team have plans to expand nationwide this year.

Why did you switch to real estate?
Originally our company grew out of our own frustrations with the difficulties in finding an apartment, and so we thought there had to be a much more seamless way to find housing.

What are the pros and cons of your new job?
The best thing about doing a startup is you have so much more freedom and control to morph the product and your vision into how it’s best for your customers. I can wake up in the morning with a very new idea and then by the middle of the day ... I can actually write all the code to change something that affects thousands of people. The cons are, there’s certainly a lack of guiding structure. Going from finance where everything is about compliance and legal help — all these people whose job is to make sure you’re not doing anything too risky — in a startup there’s none of that. ... You could make a decision that could tank the company if you’re not careful.

What does your recent partnership with Citi Habitats mean for your business?
We’re excited because Citi Habitats is one of the largest rental firms in the city and they have over 2,000 exclusives, so now we have pretty much all the great inventory in New York to offer to apartment renters who come to our site. It’s also great for them as well because they’re getting a whole lot more exposure.

What’s one thing that sets RentHop apart?
We’re not just about searching; we rank all of the apartments. We have a unique scoring system that can rank the quality of the apartments because of all the data that we’ve gathered over the years.

What makes navigating the NYC rental market difficult?
That there are too many apartments that are a waste of your time to see because they’re either overpriced or low quality, and that the very good apartments are instantly taken; it’s very competitive.

What should new renters know?
In order to get a great apartment at a reasonable price, you need to be on top of all the inventory ... and be ready to go on a moment’s notice, so you can send out an application and put down a deposit. Be ready to jump on a decent deal because... if you hesitate at all, the next person behind you is going to take it out from under you.

Are you happy with your career switch?
I’m extremely, extremely happy, the best thing is the ability to just impact thousands and thousands of people all the time and constantly change and implement any creative ideas that come.

Looking back, do you wish you had gone into this originally? Why?
I actually am very glad I took the path I did because having seen the methodical way that Wall Street firms and hedge funds operate and think about their risks, and how careful they are and also the quantitative methods they take, I think that has been a huge help in the way we run our company, where we’re much more conservative than a lot of other firms have been. Coming from a big, big company where things can be very bureaucratic and slow, it’s amazing to see the contrast when you’re at a startup that is so fast paced and you have to make decisions as they come.

Any advice for readers considering a career 180?
I would say minimize the time you spend doing nights-and-weekends side projects, and just go for it. At the end of the day, think of how much farther along you’ll be if you just dive into your startup and go all in and give it 100% from the beginning.

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