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102: All-In-One Web Apps with Tom Spaniol of ZenLord Pro

Published January 25, 2022
Run time: 00:48:06
Listen to this episode with one of these apps:

Some of the best innovations are born out of frustration, which was the case for the founders of the property management software company, ZenLord Pro.

CEO Tom Spaniol chats with Tim Bornholdt about running a software company without a technical background, building a web app over a mobile app, wanting others in his space to succeed, and how the most important meetings can happen on a pontoon boat.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • The value of having both technical and nontechnical founders
  • How to scale from a tech team of one
  • How everyone has buggy software
  • How perspective is everything in entrepreneurship
  • When to build a web app over a mobile app
  • Where the line sits between free and premium features
  • How to be organized around customer needs
  • Resources for non-technical founders

This episode is brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, where we make sense of mobile app development with our non-technical approach to building custom mobile software solutions. Learn more at https://jmg.mn.

Recorded November 10, 2021 | Edited by Jordan Daoust | Produced by Jenny Karkowski

Show Links

ZenLord Pro website | https://zenlordpro.com

JMG Pricing Page | https://jmg.mn/pricing

Follow The Jed Mahonis Group on LinkedIn | https://linkedin.com/company/the-jed-mahonis-group

Chat with The Jed Mahonis Group about your app | https://jmg.mn

Rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts | https://constantvariables.co/review

Episode Transcript:

Tim Bornholdt 0:00
Welcome to Constant Variables, a podcast where we take a non-technical look at building and growing digital products. I'm Tim Bornholdt. Let's get nerdy.

Jenny Karkowski 0:22
This episode is sponsored by The Jed Mahonis Group. We build best in class iOS and Android apps for companies of all sizes, from funded startups to small businesses to corporate enterprises. We love partnering with our clients as their mobile tech expert. And you can see some of our recent projects on our website at jmg.mn, where you'll also find pricing for our services.

While you're listening to Tim's conversation with Tom Spaniol, please take a second to rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts. Help us out with a rating and review and we'll thank you with a shout out on the show. Visit constantvariables.co/review and will take you right there. Or if you're using an Apple device, head to the main show page for Constant Variables within the Apple Podcasts app. And remember to leave your name or company name somewhere in the review so that we can publicly thank you.

Tim Bornholdt 1:13
Tom, welcome to the show.

Tom Spaniol 1:14
Tim, thanks for having me.

Tim Bornholdt 1:15
I'm really excited to have you here today. I'd love for you to take a chance to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about ZenLord Pro.

Tom Spaniol 1:22
Yeah, so I'm Tom Spaniol, one of the cofounders and CEO of ZenLord Pro. ZenLord Pro is a full service software solution for the independent landlord. We're available in all 50 states. We're really a one login, one solution approach in kind of helping landlords run every aspect of their business, and, you know, helping really helping them scale over time with us as well.

Tim Bornholdt 1:46
I love it. I'm really curious to hear how you came up with that idea. I know before you founded ZenLord Pro you were an elementary teacher. And you built a SaaS company without much of a technical background, which is one of my favorite stories to tell on this show because it really proves anybody can be involved with tech if you want to take the time to learn about it. So I'm really curious to hear how you went about building a digital product.

Tom Spaniol 2:08
Yeah, so you know, they say most great things are built out of inspiration or desperation. And so our story really kind of starts actually, with my brother-in-law. He is our CTO. He's built this product. And he is one of the cofounders, of course, and he was in property management for like the last 10 years. So this really came out of desperation of he would try all these different online tools to help him manage his properties, didn't really like what he was finding, and then eventually kind of taught himself how to code, started writing some code for his own little properties on the side, some things that helped with communications, a few things that helped with rent collection. And eventually, he kind of saw this need to, you know, there are, these systems are missing for the independent landlord nationwide. And so we came together to really launch ZenLord Pro, so it was really out of his frustration and desperation where ZenLord Pro was born.

Tim Bornholdt 3:07
It's gotta be nice to have a brother-in-law who has that technical background to help, you know, get some of those ideas off the ground. Did you have any, like, kind of properties that you were managing as well, at the time?

Tom Spaniol 3:19
No, I at the time was was not involved with property management at all. So our third co founder, so another person that was kind of from our hometown that we got together with was his family has been in property management all his life. They own 1500 apartment units in the in the Central Minnesota area. So those two really brought the kind of property expertise. And then I was more on the business side in the helping with fundraising. And now, you know, of course, doing everything else that a early stage CEO has to do, which is a little bit of literally everything, except for writing the code.

Tim Bornholdt 3:53
Yeah, it's really interesting to know how you came out of your previous career and into this one, and you're right. Like, when you do take on that role of like a startup CEO, you really are kind of just doing everything that people throw at you, and so it's interesting, like how all those pieces fit together. Like you've got someone with the technical side, you got somebody that has that property management side as well. And then you coming in and kind of filling in all the gaps. That's effectively how it shook out?

Unknown Speaker 4:22
Yeah, it is. It was a really good like self awareness by by John, our CTO, of saying like to me that he knows property management and he knows software but he's better if he's behind the computer. And you know, that he, this was his words, not mine, but he was saying like, we need somebody who can go be out there and help with sales, help with fundraising, help with marketing. And he knew I could do some of those things. So that's exactly how it shook out. That really was his self awareness of saying, I need kind of, I'm the technical founder and I need a non tech founder to help me with all these different things that are just not in my area of expertise.

Tim Bornholdt 5:05
It's really a great insight on his part too that you can't do everything all by yourself. You really can't. And especially if you need to be focusing on architecting out technical aspects of the system, you also can't all of a sudden shift gears and go to selling the app or raising money or dealing with customer issues. So that was very prescient, I think on his part.

Unknown Speaker 5:28
Yeah, no, it was and most people try to. They want to do everything themselves, right. Like, I want to own 100% of this company. This is my baby. I got to do it all. And really, like we had those conversations early on that he understood owning a smaller piece of something big was going to be much more important, you know, and beneficial for him than owning something, you know, a large part, a large piece of something that ends up to be a small company, because he couldn't get it off the ground by himself. So that's such a huge thing that I think a lot of early stage founders are wary of, you know. They don't want to give up too much. And this is their baby. But you really need to find people that complement your skills that can do the things that you can't do. And we're, I mean, of course, we're still early stage. And we're always looking too, like, where are we lacking? Because it's still a team of only two. It's like, where are we lacking? And where can we bring on people that can do what we both can't do?

Tim Bornholdt 6:21
No, absolutely. I mean, so being early stage, I would assume, then, you know, that you had to find ways to be scrappy, to get this initial app off the ground. So I really would be interested to hear from your standpoint of how you got the app from just the idea in your heads out on to code. Did you have to hire in more people, or was your brother-in-law really able to just kind of take that whole bag and do it himself?

Tom Spaniol 6:47
He was able to do us almost the whole thing himself. So he had a little bit of contracting, development help to get there, our MVP, or our first version out. But he really did essentially put that first one out himself, which is, and it's really great timing for this interview, we are actually launching our next version very soon, by probably the time that this recording is out, it should be launched, our version two of ZenLord Pro. And that has been built with the help of five developers. So it's gonna be a whole lot different. But we were lucky enough, we stayed really scrappy, you know, really bootstrapped. We only got the first version out with about $75,000 worth of funding. He built, you know, early versions of the product, just to get something out there to really get customer feedback. That was our big thing was to get somebody using it, and then you know, get that feedback right away, how can we improve upon it. And that's what we've done over the last year and a half of, you know, letting more and more people sign up. We improved on our first version, just him tinkering around. And then it kind of we finally came together, you know, and we had enough feedback, we thought. We started to get enough fundraising. And now we, you know, have five developers working on it and version two launching soon.

Tim Bornholdt 8:01
Having five, going from one developer to five developers, I know is quite a leap. And there's a lot of different responsibilities then. Have you seen your CTO, brother in law, I guess, the right answer, right way to describe it. Has he been doing more management than development? Or is he still like, how do you actually go from just a team of one to all of a sudden dealing with five people contributing into the code?

Tom Spaniol 8:28
Yeah, so now, he was a lot more in the strategic planning, right, writing the roadmaps and everything. And then kind of managing their work. He is doing less development and moreso management of those five people. And we've scaled up from those five. And we're finding them, they're contractors, right now. They're not full time employees. And really, we're finding them all over the world, just with how the Internet and everything works today. It's a beautiful thing that we are working with developers from all over the world. And he's just scaled them up as they've been needed and as our kind of our funding has allowed, so it's yeah, it's been really cool to see him be able to transition from, you know, hacking the keys every day to taking on more of that CTO true role of managing all these developers, but it's really worked well so far. And we're really excited with our progress.

Tim Bornholdt 9:18
That's awesome. Have you been mostly finding developers through things like Upwork? Or where have you been going to actually track down freelancers?

Tom Spaniol 9:26
Yeah, Upwork, you know, you hit it right on. We have used work and it's been really really good for us so far.

Tim Bornholdt 9:32
Nice. Yeah, I've been pretty pleased with the developers I've found on Upwork. There's, you know, one or two that you find that it's just kind of a front for somebody else and you have to kind of work your way through it but if you hit those right people you can really find the right team and having it distributed around the world actually can be a pretty big benefit as well.

Tom Spaniol 9:52
Yeah, and so we used Upwork to do, they're the ones actually engineering like our version two, but our design of it was done from a different company who contracts kind of around the world. So we had connections to this other company, X Cube Labs is their name. We had connections to them through our VC firm that has invested in us. And so we use them for the design. And then just some things didn't kind of work out with the timing of some other developers. And then we found people on Upwork. And it's worked really well. So it's been interesting for me, right, as a former elementary teacher, to now really get a glance behind how things are made and to seeing this happen of we're contracting with this company in Dallas, who's actually contracting with developers in India. And they're building our software here. And, you know, nobody even ever realizes this or knows this, until, you know, I blurt it on a podcast, but it's just super interesting to me to really kind of get that view behind how things are actually made.

Tim Bornholdt 10:54
What do you think are some other things like mentioning being an elementary teacher and having that kind of perspective brought into it is there, are there other things that you found having a career and a life outside of tech and then coming into tech with that different perspective, has it led to anything unique, or any kind of interesting perspectives that you've also taken away from going from being a teacher into now being a CEO of a tech company?

Tom Spaniol 11:20
I would just say, like, in general, I wouldn't even say the transition from teaching to doing this, but just like, in general, realizing that, you know, everyone is still just trying to figure stuff out, you know. There was this great sense I had when I was a kid that everyone wants to hit being, I don't know what age, but when they're adults, they have everything figured out. And now it's, you know, transitioning into this world of entrepreneurship and doing a lot more meetings and meeting a lot more adults in different spaces. And it's like, We're all just trying to build something and trying to figure it out. Nobody has life figured out. They don't, they hardly have their own product figured out when you really, you know, get a glance behind everything. Everyone's just holding it together. And it's just very interesting, kind of, to see that, and then you know, it makes you feel a little bit better about yourself, and you're able to reflect of, you know, we're not too far off, you know. We've met with some CEOs and different people in our space that look like they're overly successful. And it's like, Wow, we were doing the same things right now. These little tinkerings that I thought were, you know, like shortfalls for us or having a, you know, early first version of our product, that obviously wasn't that great, because it was the first version. But you know, that was x y & z company seven years ago, and now look at them. So it's really been kind of just that transition to me, kind of getting into this tech space, because when you're just a user of the products, you just kind of forget, and you assume that all products and every company was just great all the time, right? Like Airbnb, I use their app. And I just assumed they've been perfect, always. But they all had these interesting challenges to start and to overcome. So that has, that's something that has really kind of given me perspective, over the last few years of actually getting into this industry and meeting with the people who are currently building companies.

Tim Bornholdt 13:12
That is such a great point. I feel like that's my job a lot is being an agency owner and working on, you know, dozens of apps at the same time. I feel like I have to have these conversations over and over and over again of, you know, your product doesn't suck. It's, yes, there's some bugs, there's some issues, of course, like that, but every app has that. And we have like in our own internal Slack team, we have a channel that whenever you're using your phone, and you come across a bug, you like take a screenshot of it just to show like, you know, there's bugs in Gmail, there's bugs in just the iOS. Like, there's these people that have literally a trillion dollars at their disposal, and they still have buggy software. It doesn't matter how big or small you are. It's can you ultimately solve the problem that your customers are facing. And if you're able to do that, then it's you know, the spirit of software development is just continual improvement and making small steps forward to, you know, a bigger and brighter future, but you don't just get there overnight. It does take a long slog of stress to get through there and get over it and eventually ship something, which is the the most important piece, I would think.

Tom Spaniol 14:26
Right. No, you're really right. I mean, it just is sometimes for whatever reason, right, it's just nice to have that permission or to see other people so I really like the Slack channel that you guys have to see big companies have their struggles and then you're just able to take a deep breath and say, Okay, this is normal, right? This is gonna happen. And we're really actually still doing something. We're building a company. You know, look at us two years ago. It really takes that sometimes to zoom out and see you know, how far you've come over a long period of time and rather than just the day to day.

Tim Bornholdt 14:58
Yeah, it is really easy to get sucked into feeling like a failure, feeling like you, you know, the whole thing is for nothing because you've, you know, run into a couple of hiccups here or there. But, you know, it really does take a step back, you know, it's not even just tech, it's like an entrepreneurial life kind of statement, you know, you really do need to just get above the treeline sometimes and see how far you've come from day one. And, you know, just keep having the courage to show up and take another step forward the next day.

Tom Spaniol 15:28
Right. Yeah, I don't know, if you've, I think it's Tony Robbins, who said, especially this happens with entrepreneurs or business owners, but you're gonna drastically overestimate what you can do in one to two years, and then drastically underestimate what can be done in decade or two. And it's just, it's so true in entrepreneurship, right, any, anytime people start something new year, you think, you got this energy right away, and you're like, This is going to be huge, like, we're going to do this and then you're gonna have these really tough things that happen in the first few years. And you probably won't get to where you want it to be just in two years. But when you give yourself patience, and really build something, you're able to look back over a decade. And really, I understand what he's saying that you can be so much farther than you ever thought you could be.

Tim Bornholdt 16:13
Yeah, it's never, what do they say, the days are long, but the years are short. It's similar kind of concept where you really, you really do have to see it as a long term investment in yourself. And it's hard, because a lot of times you look around and you see your competition, and you might say like, Oh man, they're so much further along than us. And they've got this and that. And you know, they've got a team of 40 people working on their app, and we've only got five. Like those kinds of ways that you, we try to compare ourselves to it, but yeah the struggles that everybody faces. It's right back to what you said, like, you know, everybody's just trying to figure this out. And even if they're a little bit further along than you, you know, they're probably freaking out about the people that are a little bit further along than them, or they're freaking out about you coming along and eating their lunch and keep innovating.

So it's like, I was listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast a while back with Chris Bosh, the basketball player. And he had a statement that he said his his mom always told him was, if you were in a room with everybody, and they were able to put, everyone could put their problems down on a table, you including yourself, you would look at all the other problems on the table and say, I'm just gonna pick up my problems. And I think about that a lot. Because it's like, you get so in the weeds about the struggles you might be facing in your business or with building software, especially like there's so many problems. But when you compare what you've got to other people, if you actually were to take a look at what problems people have, you usually don't have it too bad.

Tom Spaniol 17:52
Right. I mean, perspective is everything, right? I mean, even when I think back to my teaching days, sometimes I'll have these hard days of, you know, things didn't go right, customers are angry, this or that. And then I'll have that perspective of, but , hey, I got to work from home today. And like, Hey, I didn't have to do that, you know, wake up at 6:30 in the freezing cold of northern Minnesota and start my car and drive 30 minutes to school and all these things that I didn't love about my teaching day, right. And so perspective really, really is everything in any industry that you're in, to kind of just take a step back and realize what you have in life. And that's the most important thing and so often gets forgotten about, forgotten about when you're building your own thing. And there's so many people who are relying on you. But it really is super important to take a step back and just breathe and have that perspective.

Tim Bornholdt 18:42
Absolutely. Well, I didn't mean to go off on a huge tangent there. But I thought that was actually really insightful for me. So I appreciate that.

Tom Spaniol 18:50
Yeah, no, it's great.

Tim Bornholdt 18:51
You know, your product right now is web based. What led you to doing that as opposed to jumping right in with doing a mobile app?

Tom Spaniol 18:59
Yeah. So that was our CTOs like, decision right away that he was kind of saying apps are a bit more restrictive, you know, then you have to deal with Google and Apple's rules. And a lot of our customers actually, you know, kind of do work on their desktops. So we just kind of made that decision early, that we're gonna be able to innovate better if we do this web based, and it's not going to be something a big hurdle to overcome. And it over the last few years, it has not been a big hurdle to overcome. Every once in a while, we get people ask, Hey, are you going to have an app? But they can use it on their phone, you know, with how well the new dashboards and everything are looking. So it hasn't been anything big for us to overcome. So I don't see us developing an app, even in our company's future, at least not in the next few years.

Tim Bornholdt 19:51
I love that. I mean, you'd think, I often say on this show that I'm the world's worst app salesman, and I think it's because of what you had just said like, for the most part, most problems can be solved with just using open web technologies and making a mobile optimized interface that gets you most of what you need. It's when you get customer feedback that is demanding you to build a mobile app, that's when you need to start paying attention and figure out like, okay, what are people actually going to be doing mobile versus if you already have a robust desktop app? You can't necessarily just say, we're going to put all the features into the mobile app and call it a day. You know, I would imagine if you had customers clamoring, right, like then you probably would look towards an app. But for now, it's like, why bother?

Tom Spaniol 20:36
Right. We will, yeah, we would. But like I said, we've just gotten those kind of one offs, just hey, you guys gonna do an app? Or hey, what are you thinking about, ever gonna do an app? And it's just like, No, not for now. And our customers, too, they don't interact with it, you know, multiple times every single day, like many different apps. So it is something that they go in, and they'll set up their properties, or they'll use it for different aspects. But, you know, for the most part, they want to set everything up right with us, and then kind of have to never check it for a long time, right, and get rent collected automatically. And have things just happened automatically, have notifications go out automatically if their tenant's late on rent, things like that. So it's not something that our customers are, you know, interacting with multiple times every single day. So it kind of doesn't make sense that they need to even have an app on their phone for it.

Tim Bornholdt 21:28
Yeah, like app fatigue is a real thing. You know, I can't tell you how many times I have to download an app just to get a coupon for whatever, and just, it gets deleted off the home screen. And I forget that I even have the thing. I would imagine, you know, thinking of I own a house now. So I don't need to, you know, use an app like yours,until I buy houses to rent I guess. But from like the tenant perspective, it's like, yeah, if you can get it on auto pay, it's not like you need to go back for many reasons other than to maybe submit a ticket or whatever to get your landlord to come out. So why bother putting another app on someone's phone that they're not going to use? You can just go on the website and click do it and you're done.

Tom Spaniol 22:09
No, you're exactly right. Even for tenants, a lot of them do sign up for auto pay. So the only reason they would even ever log into their ZenLord Pro account is what you just said with the maintenance ticket. They could submit a maintenance request to the landlord, or they can message their landlord. But still, those things are, right, like four to five times a year, hopefully, if the rental properties ran correctly. If it's a nice rental property, yeah, you're not going to have too much go wrong, and you're just not going to need to communicate with your landlord. And, you know, and then your rents on AutoPay. So, yeah, we love when the tenants aren't logging in, just from their perspective, that means that you know, everything is going well for them, right. So it's kind of an interesting difference, right? With some people that want their, need their apps used multiple times a day. Ours is more, we want the landlord to just be very, very comfortable, set everything up. And it all to work for them. Let the code do the work and not necessarily them.

Tim Bornholdt 23:06
And I love that perspective of just getting people in and out of the app as fast as possible. Because I think a lot of times in this space, apps are designed to be more like slot machines and and have that kind of urge to keep going back in and checking the app for things. And I think there's the reason that people do that, I think, is to to increase, the more attention you have, the more you can sell ads against it, or whatever to whatever your revenue model is to keep people in. But I'm curious how that fits in with your revenue model. If the whole point of the app is to, you know, not use it effectively, like again, if it's being, everything is going well, no one's using the app, what does your pricing look like? How does, how have you built out the business side of things to make sure you're still collecting revenue off this thing?

Tom Spaniol 23:50
Yeah, so we have a free plan, and then two kind of upgraded paid plans. But even on our free plan, we will make revenue and capitalize on that. So we make money on rent collection. So the tenants pay the ACH or the credit card fee when they make a payment. And if the landlord chooses to not want their tenants to pay for the ACH fee, that's one of the features that the landlord can pay for it on their side and kind of pay that fee for them as in one of our upgraded plans. We also make money from any tenant screening applications that happen from electronic lease signings, and then some different features like the messaging. That's kind of an upgraded feature within our app that would not be available on the free plan. And then we have some more ways to make money around payments and like with faster payouts so you can get next day payouts. Tenant pays the landlord, it typically takes five to seven business days to process but you can get it next day and that's an upgraded charge as well.

So those were all things that we kind of played around with for the first year and a half. Some we knew exactly going in how we're going to charge And then some of those, of course came in with different feedback and whatnot. But yeah, it's, pricing, and you know, figuring that out has certainly been an interesting thing. That's obviously why you build a product to solve a need. And then of course, to have your company be successful. But that's been a very interesting piece to go through. And obviously, we're continually monitoring that as well. And pricing is going to change when version two launches and all that. Tt's an ongoing, probably never ending battle, really.

Tim Bornholdt 25:31
It's always trying to figure out where you can put up the, if you have that tiered kind of a free plan, and then more premium plans on top of it, it's figuring out where that paywall, you know, sits in between your feature set, so you get enough features to get people in and using the app and collecting bits of revenue here and there off of the free people. But then, yeah, that's always been an interesting problem that I've had to solve many times is, and it's just like anything with app development, it's never perfect. And it's always evolving, but just trying to figure out where that line sits between free and premium. I'm sure it's just been a constant back and forth on your side to figure out which features get given away for free and which features, you know, you have to actually pony up for.

Tom Spaniol 26:15
Yeah, it has been and you know, some of it will slightly change, like I said, when we launch our next version compared to our first version as well. And things might change in the future, as, of course, some of the partners that we work with if their pricing changes, or we find new ones. So it will be an ongoing and never ending battle. And of course you a little bit, you know, you monitor what your competition is doing too, right. Yeah. So that's kind of how we got there in the first place, a lot of monitoring competition. And then of course, just looking at our own pricing that we have with our partners. And then like you said, you just figure out that line of what is going to get people in and what will they pay for. And so far, you know, it's worked out pretty well for us to have unit economics that we're very comfortable with.

Tim Bornholdt 26:59
Excellent. Well, you mentioned competitors. And I can see just there clearly the need for this app. And I'm sure that it's not something that you just innovated just out of nowhere within a moat with no one else also seeing this problem. So I'm guessing you've got some competitors. I'm really curious to hear who you see as your competition, and then how you differentiate your service from what they offer?

Tom Spaniol 27:24
Yeah, so like our main competitor, when we first were building this was Cozy, and now they've been bought and they're Apartments.com. But even even one of their main things is like they're really good at listing your rentals and collecting rent. And then you're still going to need, we found that landlords are still going to need a few other like software services to help them you know, when it comes time to message tenants or when it comes time to message a maintenance vendor, things like that. There was still just misses here and there. And so we really chose to be that one login, one solution approach and try to put everything in one spot. Of course, it's a tall task. There's probably a reason some of those companies didn't do it right away. Building all of those features is a big, big task. But we've just found that that's what people want in this space of, can I just have one spot to run everything. So cozy or Apartments.com has been a big competitor, turbo tenant. And there's a few others.

Of course, this space, some people see it as really crowded, but then the amount of customers that we have is also really kind of never ending. They say that there's about $500 billion of rent collected in the United States each year. And 375 billion of that comes from the small asset landlord, so that's somebody with 20 or less rental units that they kind of own those. And they're typically doing it on the side. They still have other jobs and everything. So they're not from just huge property management companies. And that's our target space. And of that 375 billion when Cozy sold, they were only collecting about a billion dollars of rent each year, so less than 1% of the whole market share. So there's still so many customers out there to be discovered. A lot of different reasons why that is, you know, with kind of the age of most landlords and things like that, where now they're starting to be more millennials and younger people getting into rental properties, and now they're looking for services. So that's where we really see that we can kind of capitalize of getting in with these new rental owners. Helping them own their first properties, making it super easy for them. They want everything all done in one spot. They don't have their ways set yet, like some of these older, you know, owners who are still collecting checks and Excel files. So that's where, you know, we're trying to set ourselves apart of use ZenLord Pro, one login, one solution. This is all you need. And you'll be off and on your way to you know, building your real estate portfolio.

Tim Bornholdt 29:54
Yeah, I mean, it's always fascinating to me the people's view and outlook on competition. Tthere's some, like there's a famous study of like the Star Wars, or Star Wars, Starbucks effect, where when a Starbucks opens up in town, usually they opened up right next to like a small coffee shop that already exists. And you would think that the small coffee shop would be instantly put out of business. But what actually happens is the people that come and notice that there's a Starbucks there, then also see, oh, there's like a smaller chain, like a smaller one off shop, and then they go and patronize that place. And so it's like, kind of a rising tide lifts all boats sort of situation where once you become aware of a problem, there's never a shortage on unique and creative ways to solve that problem. And that's what's really cool about software is it's like, think of how many like project management apps there are out there, or email clients or note taking apps, weather apps. If you ever go into the Apple store, and you look at weather apps on the App Store, all of them get their data from the same place. It's literally the same data because it's always the NOAA, whatever that acronym is, that puts out the weather data. It's all the same data. But there's like 1000s of weather apps, because there's so many different ways that you might want to see your weather. And so that's what's cool about what you're doing with ZenLord Pro is like you've got a differentiator. You've got different little ways that your style is going to mesh with, even if it's a fraction of 1%, you know, I'm sure if you were doing a billion dollars in transactions a year, you'd probably be pretty happy. And there's room for lots of people to come in and try to innovate on that space and make it unique. So I think it's a good way to look at competition is it's not necessarily like people, there are people obviously, with capitalism, it's like, I win, and you lose sort of a proposition. But I still think that there's a way that everyone can kind of work together to at least get people off of using checks and Excel spreadsheets and onto using some, like actual tools that are purpose built for making landlords and tenants jobs easier.

Tom Spaniol 32:06
Yeah, no. And the rising tide lifts all boats quote that you said, that's exactly, we had a conversation recently with a CEO of another company in our space. And he was extremely helpful and forthright and trying to tell us what's worked for him and everything. And he said that exact quote to us, he's like, Hey, I want everyone in this space to succeed. And we talked about those simple things, he's like, I don't understand why anyone is still using a check or why anyone's doing things, why anyone would drive across town to sign a paper application, things like that, in 2021. But they are, right. So it's like, let's get everyone using this. That's gonna help, you know, probably bring up the rental market even more because those are some of the hurdles that people are afraid of, when they're even thinking about, Do I want an investment property? And then they're thinking about these hurdles of, How am I going to collect rent? How am I going to screen my tenants? How am I going to, you know, even if I find the contractors, is communicating with them going to be a mess, things like that. And it's like, that's what these services are here for. And so as more of their friends, even if they heard about a competitor, they might end up finding us because of it. And like you said, yeah, if we start to even collect just a sliver of that, and we're collecting a billion dollars of rent a year, which is one of our five year targets, we're gonna be in very, very good shape. And our investors and everyone's gonna be very happy. So it, which is funny, because that's yeah, it's less than 1% of the market share. So it is a great space to be in, we think, even if you've, you know, can look up all these different property management tools. Of course, we have our own niche, we think and we're excited about the whole space in general.

Tim Bornholdt 33:46
I love it. You've mentioned a lot of cool features that your software does. And we've kind of talked about just looking at how you've got this upcoming release, obviously, with version two coming out the door pretty soon. So I'm really interested to learn how you and your team think about determining which features you're going to focus on building first is. I'm sure you've got a ton of things you want the app to do, but how do you get all of that, like, you know, down and then sorted so that you're kind of prioritizing which features get put in first?

Tom Spaniol 34:19
Yeah, so version two, at least I can speak to that, was kind of all the features that we had in our MVP, but made a whole lot better. So you know, our first version that just one developer released, everything was just a bit clunky. Signup forms are too long. Things didn't just kind of work together the way they should in the software. So we're gonna have a whole new, you know, UI UX design. Everything's gonna be a lot faster, things like that. And then we just kind of went with each feature that we currently had. It's like, how can we improve upon this. Like the messaging we had a little simple version that was built, but now we're working with a new company that can do awesome things like upload videos, upload photos, it can auto translate if your tenants speak a different language than the landlord. So things like that we kind of went in, how can we make this current feature that we have better for version two?

And then once version two is out, it's, you know, we need some runtime on that a little bit. And then we, I mean, we have thoughts already. But we like to do some surveying as well. So that makes a lot of sense, I think, to talk to your customers, start to put out surveys of, you know, are these features that you think you'd care about? What are we still missing? A little bit that way, and you can learn a lot like that, but it still doesn't solve everything, right? Like, there's the quote, if Harrison Ford would have asked his, you know, asked the customers back then what they want, they would have said faster horses. So, you know, cars would have never got built. So it's a little bit of surveying is great to still find out what they need. And then we kind of just got to innovate on our own and just continue to pay attention to where the world is going and web 3 and what are the trends, and how can we, you know, most capitalize on everything that's happening in the space right now.

Tim Bornholdt 36:15
I think it's interesting with surveying. Yeah, that Henry Ford, quote always makes me laugh when I think about that, too. And I think it applies in tech, because when we do customer surveys, or any kind of market research, often the best insights come when you're actually trying to uncover problems, instead of trying to ask for solutions or proposed solutions and say, yeah, that's what I'd want. If you can really understand a customer's problem, then it's up to you as the company and you as the CEO, to have that vision to say, Alright, these are the problems that I think are going to be the most profitable to solve. And then really focus your efforts in on solving those specific problems and being focused and not get distracted by things that seem like, Oh, it'd be cool if we had an app, or, Oh, it'd be cool if our, you know, our thing had a drone attached to it or something. It's like, yeah, those things are cool. But, you know, you got to be focused on actually solving customers' problems, because that's what's gonna, you know, ultimately lead to cars being built instead of, you know, whatever, juicing up horses to run faster or whatever.

Tom Spaniol 37:21
Yeah, no, exactly. And getting more organized on that front alone, right. So like our first version, we've had 1300 people sign up over the last few years. That's been sort of easy for just John and I, too, without really good systems to pay attention talking to our customers of where are we missing, right? But as you start to go forward, and we start to sign up, you know, hundreds or 1000s each month, then we need better systems of like support tickets, and everything of where those coming in. So where are they having problems? And what, you know, what can we fix and make better in there? So that's something we're certainly going to be doing with version two is getting a bit more organized on that front of, you know, learning exactly our customers needs, and not kind of just hopping on the first, you know, two customers that mentioned, you know, somewhere we're missing Because I know we did a little bit that early, right. It's like, when you have just 10 customers, right, that are demoing it. And one person says something, you're like, Oh, my gosh, we need to make this feature for this person, then it's like, Oh, hey, step back. Let's get a bit more like organized on this and really think about, you know, what, at what numbers do we need to see things and, like you said, really, like, dive into the customer's problems, and then innovate off of that.

Tim Bornholdt 38:45
It's so easy to get distracted by one loud voice that's using your app and says the app needs to do this. And it's like, well, yeah, maybe. But also, maybe this app isn't for you, and you should go build your own app.

Tom Spaniol 38:59
Yeah, no, it's true. Like I'm glad that kind of both of us have that perspective. There has certainly been, you know, users we've had over the last two years that I've never told anyone to leave, but it's just like, hey, no, we don't do that. You know, we said, I'm sorry, but we can't meet those needs. And you know, if you find someone else that can, more power to you, but we are not going to change our whole app just for you. And you really have to do that, especially as an early stage company. It is very scary and easy to go off on tangents. So it's you just got to stick to your guns and not let you know, the single loud voice like you said, sway you.

Tim Bornholdt 39:41
100%. Are there any resources or anything that really helped you out with kind of getting your tech idea off the ground and especially from your standpoint, coming from like a non technical background, where there was, were there any resources or books or podcasts or anything that you really leaned on to helping like you know, get the company started? But then also building like a tech company, I'm sure there were like other things you had to get up to speed with really quickly on to know how all this stuff works. Is there anything that comes to mind?

Tom Spaniol 40:11
I just in general, like paying attention to the space and for me paying attention to just like the language that's used in any space that you're in. So it's like I started to pay attention to whether it be Twitter or watching YouTube videos, or yeah, reading books like venture deals. When I was trying to really pay attention to like how to talk to investors, and it's like, first you just need to speak that language, right? You need to be able to understand what like a pre seed company is versus a Series A, and things like that. Of course, I'd never heard those terms like as a teacher, so it, I really kind of try to dive in and listen to things like that. Even the hilarious show that, it's a comedy that shows Silicon Valley on HBO, I don't you've ever seen it. But like, then I was watching that kind of while I was going through the early stages of this company. And it was really funny. Like, Hey, I know, the show is hilarious, and it has great entertainment value, but like they're really kind of showing those words, right, and the inner workings of a tech company, obviously very, you know, comedy, but and everything is drawn out and crazy. But yeah, so it's just I dove into moreso reading and listening. I listened to Tim Ferriss a lot as well. Navall Raava Khan has been huge for me, he's probably someone that I listened to the most. I don't know if you're familiar with Navall. But he's, he's a huge, you know, very popular in the tech space, early investor in Twitter, Uber, things like that. So just listening to resources has really kind of helped me, like, I've been saying, speak the language. And once you can do that, then you can, you know, better understand how to sell your company to these people.

Tim Bornholdt 42:02
Silicon Valley, to me, has, it's been more of a triggering, like PTSD sort of experience, just having gone through this space for so long. Like that first, at the very first episode, like while he was trying to figure out, like, he had that big decision to make of whether to like leave or do his own thing. And he just, like ended up having a panic attack and was in the hospital for it, like it actually started giving me a panic attack, like remembering being like, in a similar position in the past. So it is like that show it is really funny but it's been really helpful for me like as a technical person to explain to my wife, like, you know, it's presented in a way that it is funny, and like, you know, it's not like I watch it and the whole time I'm just like, kind of neck bearding, nerding being like, that's not how it works. Because honestly, how it's portrayed on the show besides maybe like the when they were coming up with the algorithm behind the stage or whatever. Probably can't say it on this podcast, but that whole conversation. That stuff, that's real life, like that's how this stuff gets built. So yeah, it's funny, like, you wouldn't think that wouldn't be a great reference for non technical people to understand. But it is like, I'd say, if, once you have gone through it yourself, you can at least look back on that show and be like, Yeah, that's a reasonable estimate of how this all works.

Tom Spaniol 43:26
Yeah. And it's good to see like, things like that, that, you know, they're sitting there working in a house, and many people are like just working in the kitchen. Right. And oftentimes, companies have successfully been built in, you know, basements and garages. And for me, I think I said this in some recent, the tech.mn article, and they kind of laughed that I said, like, we've had meetings on a pontoon, you know. I thought entrepreneurship was going to be all this, you know, big, fancy glass window offices and everyone wearing suits, but it's really not. Like we've made big decisions, you know, on the pontoon. We've had, you know, plenty of meetings at, you know, a dive bar and things like that, and it's like, just how it is right? Every company is different. There's no, like one size fits all, in business in general. And so, yeah, shows like that, and just reading and listening to different people, they really help kind of, like I said before, like give you the permission that it's okay to do things this way or that way. Because there is no right in this space. Like it's whatever works and whatever works for you and your company.

Tim Bornholdt 43:50
I love that and I couldn't agree with you more about entrepreneurship being less about the, I remember most of the meetings that I have when they're taking place in downtown skyscrapers in big glass rooms. Of course you do because that is really exciting to go into a lawyer's office and sign papers or do whatever you know. It's like part of the glitz and glamour but frankly, most of my job is done like in dive bars or at like a, you know, my case is mostly breweries. It is just like hanging out and having these conversations and coming up with creative solutions. And most of the time, at least my creativity never has been, you know, really sparked by sitting in a downtown office building. It's been sparked by walking, going out on walks, or being outside or being around other people and just talking and bouncing ideas off of and that's the cool thing with entrepreneurship is you can make it whatever you want. Like, if you see the way that something has been done traditionally doesn't work for you then do it in a way that works for you. And then pretty soon, people will start heralding you as a hero for doing something that's very obvious to you, but maybe just people are too caught up in the status quo or get caught up in the quote, unquote, right way of doing things that you can kind of really stand apart by just doing something that feels natural to you.

Tom Spaniol 45:56
Yeah, absolutely. Like, I think there was a Gary Vee quote, he said, There is no right. There's only right for you. And I've really taken that to heart in all aspects of my life. But then especially like running this business, right? It's like, I can sit there and compare myself to all these other CEOs of different companies that I know but that's right for them. And I got to do what's right for me and our company. So yeah, there is no right. There's only right for you has really stood out in my life in that regard.

Tim Bornholdt 46:23
I love it. That's a great way to end this. I appreciate you coming on, Tom. I'd love to give you a chance to plug your product obviously. And if there's anything else, any parting words you want to leave the audience with here. Now's your chance.

Tom Spaniol 46:36
Yeah, no, just go check out ZenLordPo.com. I'm sure by the time this airs, we will have our version two out. Everything will be looking fresh and new. Barring any setbacks, but you know, when I think this episode is supposed to air, we should have our new version out and we're very excited about it. So check it out at ZenLordPro.com. Or on YouTube, just type in ZenLord Pro, you'll find us there and some of our demo videos.

Tim Bornholdt 47:00
Well, Tom, thank you so much for joining me today. I wish you the best of luck with your second release here. And I hope that people go out there and give ZenLord Pro a chance. And again, thank you for coming on.

Tom Spaniol 47:10
Yeah, Tim, thank you very much for having me. This was awesome.

Jenny Karkowski 47:14
Thanks to Tom Spaniol for joining Tim on the podcast today. You can learn more about ZenLord Pro by visiting ZenLordPro.com.

Show notes for this episode can be found at constantvariables.co. You can get in touch with the show by emailing Hello@constantvariables.co. Or you can find us on Twitter @CV_podcast. Tim is most active on LinkedIn so connect with him there if you haven't already.

Today's episode was produced by Jenny Karkowski and edited by the superb Jordan Daoust.

As I mentioned at the start of the episode, if you can take two minutes to leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, we'll give you a mention in a future episode as a thank you. Visit constantvariables.co/review and we'll take you right there.

This episode was brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group. Check us out at JMG.mn.