The Rise and Fall of Cribspot
Renting in Ann Arbor has never been a picnic.
With little to no online information, students seeking off-campus housing relied on paper signs in windows, notices on campus bulletin boards or word of mouth.
That model changed with a Traverse City native’s class project.
In 2012, Central High School graduate Evan Dancer was nearing the end of his computer science engineering degree program at the University of Michigan. For a class project, Dancer and two friends – Jason Okrasinski, a bachelor of business administration major; and Tim Jones, a fellow CSE student – created a search engine to simplify the process of renting off-campus housing.
Naming their search engine a2cribs, Dancer, Okrasinski, and Jones aggregated and crowdsourced residential rental opportunities throughout the Ann Arbor area.
The intention wasn’t to launch a business, but things moved in that direction. By the time the course was over and it was time to take a2cribs off the web, the site had 40,000 hits. The buzz encouraged the friends to re-launch the site as Cribspot in March 2013.
After graduation last spring, the three scattered. Dancer left behind his Michigan roots for a job at Cisco Systems in San Jose, Calif. After just a few months and for different reasons, they had all returned to Ann Arbor to give their fledgling business the old college try.
Cribspot rapidly became a go-to tool for housing searches. Soon, the business expanded to other college campuses. CNBC and TechCrunch covered the story; Cribspot began attracting seed money: $11,000 from a U of M grant; $40,000 for winning Detroit’s TechWeek; and another $660,000 in its first round of venture capital funding through Y Combinator, a seed accelerator that also backed Reddit, Dropbox and Airbnb.
When Cribspot hit 170 college campuses, the company’s founders looked for ways to move beyond the original search engine concept. That push to grow and do more led the business to property management.
Dancer says that he and his business partners saw opportunities in handling rent payments, scheduling maintenance, or dealing with uncommunicative landlords.
“We were really trying to move the needle on how people deal with housing,” Dancer said. “In Ann Arbor, the houses are in poor condition, the landlords only accept one check, they never come over or fix things, and the city is pretty corrupt with not keeping things up to code. The mission was to make the renter’s life better.”
As recently as a year ago, the plan looked good and the press took notice. In March 2017, CNBC published “How three Michigan students turned a class project into $3 million.” In addition to outlining some of the finer details of Cribspot’s property management services – and the technology driving that part of the business – the article broke the news that the startup had brought its venture capital total to $2.9 million across three rounds of funding.
What happened next, though, was a lesson no b-school could top.
Dancer said that he and his partners “dove in blind” to a market they didn’t fully understand: The vision was to provide an end-to-end housing solution, with landlords handing control of their properties over to Cribspot and still earning a passive income. Tenants could use the platform to find properties, tour properties virtually, ask questions about different houses or apartments, schedule property maintenance, or pay rent online.
“It ended up being a lot more people-intensive than we thought,” Dancer said.
The new challenges ate into Cribspot’s profit margins. Between furnishing apartments, handling maintenance claims, and even offering a rent guarantee for landlords, Cribspot was spending too much money.
In the end, Dancer says he and his partners saw the writing on the wall and started looking for a “soft landing” to bring the business to a conclusion. That soft landing was ultimately provided by Apartment List, a business that – like Cribspot in the early days – aggregates apartment listings into one place. Launched in 2011, Apartment List won a Webby in 2012 for “Best Real Estate Site.” Early this year, the company acquired Cribspot and offered jobs to its three founders.
“We were running out of time to do our experiments and decided to join a bigger team that had more users and more things going for it,” Dancer said. “Pretty easy choice.”
The acquisition was a boon for Apartment List. Both Dancer and Jones joined the team, bringing their considerable knowledge about the property rental industry. Dancer is now an engineering manager for Apartment List, leading the company’s renter acquisition team. Through search engine marketing, SEO, conversion rate optimization, and other strategies, Dancer and the four-person team he manages work to bring new renters to ApartmentList.com. The business gets paid if a tenant signs a lease and moves in – a different model from companies like Apartments.com, which bills landlords per lead.
Dancer’s new job has taken him to San Francisco, away from his home state and family, who still live in TC. His dad is local architect John Dancer, vice president of Cornerstone Architects, and his uncle is attorney Mark Dancer, of Dingeman & Dancer PLC.
Despite the distance, Dancer says he is right at home working on the Apartment List software, which he says is very similar to what Cribspot was in the early days. He’s also says he’s enjoying being an employee rather than a co-founder – from the added work-life balance of the job to the presence of engineers who know the answers even when he doesn’t.
Dancer says there’s some lingering regret over the way things went at Cribspot, but added he’s glad he had the learning experience the business provided.
The biggest lesson he learned?
“Build one thing really well instead of 10 things that are just okay,” he said.