Rafael Petry, Head of Engineering, reflects on his first year at withco, a mission-driven commercial real estate company helping small business owners become property owners and build generational wealth in the long term.
I’ve always loved the task of engineering—there’s a great degree of satisfaction that comes from building something that other people interact with and get excited about. I studied computer science in college and then moved to the U.S. from Brazil for work. I dallied in the proptech space for a few years, but after a while, I was craving work that could have a more meaningful impact on society.
People have long thought of technology as a morally neutral entity. But the recent past has shown us that tech, even if developed with the best of intentions, can have negative consequences—like the spread of disinformation, teen depression rates, deepening inequality, among others. No one intended for this to happen, but unfortunately too many business models disincentivize using tech for the greater good. And sometimes, tech even exacerbates the problem.
It wasn’t until I met withco’s CEO, Kevin Song, that it really clicked for me: Tech can be used for the greater good when it supports a business model that is inherently incentivized to help people. I was really inspired by withco’s mission—it was exciting to me that real estate could be used to empower small businesses to become property owners, who for the longest time have had the odds stacked against them when it comes to owning commercial property and building generational wealth.
To do this, withco employs a lease-to-own model for small businesses. First, withco buys the space that the small business occupies (and is currently renting) and becomes the landlord. Only now, whenever the SMB pays rent, they earn a percentage of the downpayment needed to purchase the property from withco after their five-year lease is up. It works as a win-win because the incentives are completely aligned in our long-term partnerships with small businesses. Success for us means the small business is in the financial position to purchase the property at the end of our lease. It also means success for the communities these small businesses serve, and at scale, society as a whole.
Learn more about withco’s lease-to-own model.
It may seem obvious at this point, but withco is not a typical real estate investor. Our focus is on single-tenant properties that are occupied by a small business and that are valued at less than $5M. The pay-off of investing one $100M office building versus one hundred ~$1M commercial properties is significant, and so our task is to invest at a higher volume in order to maintain comparable returns. This task is exciting to us because it means we can help many more small businesses at scale.
What I love about running withco’s engineering organization is that our role is to really maximize our mission. To do what we do at scale, we need to make high-quality decisions much faster. withco’s 2022 goal is to partner with 100 new small businesses this year, but the data about these long-tail assets is massive and extremely fragmented, especially outside of major urban areas, making this a very challenging problem to tackle.
What we’re working on now is building the tools that enable data-driven decision-making, creating efficiency and certainty for us, our small business partners, and their real estate brokers. It’s a huge undertaking, but we get closer and closer every day—and it’s incredibly exciting to work on a problem that anyone else has yet to solve.
We’re also working to help small businesses more directly by making the partnership and purchase process much more seamless for them. Most small business owners lack the expertise needed to invest in commercial properties, and need to be guided through the process. By leveraging tech, in addition to creating a stellar customer-facing product, we can make the process simple and accessible, meeting people where they are.
This on-the-ground problem solving is one of the most exciting reasons to work as an engineer at withco. The combination of working at a mission-driven company that is also an early-stage startup fosters a natural culture of collaboration that is much more dynamic than your typical engineering role. You aren’t going to be heads down, coding in a silo. You need to be able to empathize with the small business partners we are here to serve and interface with other teams like Investments or Sales. You know the right questions to ask, and you need to be able to collaborate much more closely with other engineers. We’ve also had great success implementing pair programming, where two engineers work to solve a problem together.
This style of collaboration and empathy is necessary because the problems we need to solve are constantly evolving. Since no one has solved this problem of helping small business owners become property owners before, we have a deeply rooted culture of experimentation here that has been creatively and technically enthralling.
The best part, however, is seeing our technical work put into action by the broader withco team. We had only two deals closed when I joined last year and a handful of employees. We’re now on our way to 100 deals and the engineering team has grown five-fold. I can’t wait to see what the next year holds, using tech to empower small business owners—and society at large.
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