The Great Recession was nearing its end and Yulia Yaani was getting excited about an idea she had for a startup. It would be her third; she had also founded a commodities trading business and a real estate company focused on renewable energy. This time, she was thinking about a crowdfunding platform to finance commercial real estate deals. “It was after the credit crunch and I was inspired by all the new technologies,” she recalls. But regulatory issues put a crimp in her plans and she was forced to pivot. Instead, she co-founded RealAtom, a technology platform for the commercial real estate lending industry.
RealAtom is a SaaS enabled platform that digitizes workflow, putting commercial mortgage brokers, investors, and lenders on the same page so that transactions are centralized and information flows without friction. “While we were building the technology, we tested it with over 500 borrowers and brokers and over 800 lenders from national, regional, and community banks and we got really good feedback,” Yaani says. The platform launched its pilot in June 2019 with two large brokerage companies as clients, she says.
Yaani has learned a lot as a serial entrepreneur, and she’s applying those lessons to RealAtom. For instance:
The right co-founder is essential. Yaani met her co-founder Masha Sharma, at 1776, a Washington, DC-based incubator, where entrepreneurs launch and scale companies. “I was extremely lucky that I met her,” says Yaani. “We have a really good marriage.” Sharma was also a three-time entrepreneur and brought 20 years of technology skills to the table. After the two decided to partner, they applied to and were accepted at 500 Startups, an accelerator in the Bay area. “We had to move there and lived for four months in the same house together with our kids and our husbands,” she says. “It was a good test of compatibility.”
Get market feedback. “Our entire platform is based on feedback,” says Yaani. “Even now, when we’re selling to large enterprises, one of our messages is that we’re here to serve you and we will continue building on your feedback. There are companies that build, build, build, then release a product and no one is using it. Our approach was to release something small in beta and continue testing as we were building.” That initial testing, and the feedback she received, gave Yaani confidence that enterprise clients, such as large banks, would feel comfortable on the platform in terms of both ease of use and security.
Be flexible. Yaani was compelled to tweak the original concept of her business because of crowdfunding regulatory issues. Entrepreneurs often need to pivot according to external variables, in addition to changing or adding to their offerings in response to customer demands. But they also must constantly be on the lookout for the hidden value in their companies. For instance, Yaani says “another thing we realized along the way is that we are actually becoming a data company. We are building technology for borrowers, brokers, and lenders to make their everyday work easier. But along the way, we will process a lot of data. How we monetize that data is a question for the future.”
Yaani says that RealAtom’s biggest challenge is that many companies in the commercial real estate industry still think they can survive without using new technology. She calls that a “temporary delusion.” Her solution is to find large, early adopters who understand the value of what her company has to offer and to leverage their participation to bring on smaller clients who will ultimately realize that they are at a disadvantage if they remain resistant to technology.
Yaani and Sharma are members of Forbes Real Estate Council and Forbes Technology Council, respectively, and both publish content. “It’s not necessarily to promote Real Atom,” says Yaani. “It’s a platform to reach out to the industry and to talk about what we think is important.” She also thinks that the publishing benefit is great way to call attention to her and Sharma as female technologists and industry leaders. “We absolutely get more attention to our company because of the articles,” she says.
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