Entrepreneur and founder Marcela Sapone is changing the way that we live--literally. She was in business school at Harvard when the genesis-idea for her company, Alfred came to her. Named after Bruce Wayne (Batman's) butler, Alfred is not a service, it's not an app, it's a technology-based way of living where tech meets real estate. Sapone thought about how wonderful it would be to have a technology-based butler for lack of a better word. Someone to save you time. Pick up your dry cleaning, stock your refrigerator, groom your dog, cook your meals etc... In the same breath she also began to notice that more and more her generation was shying away from buying a home and were continuing to rent and renting, to put it bluntly, can really suck.
"More and more of us are renting," she says. "We're renting for longer. Right now 40% of Americans are renting their home. This is the biggest consumer product on the planet, [and] this dynamic has existed for a very long time where the renter feels like they're not getting a lot of value. You feel like you're throwing your money down the toilet."
Sapone's interest in how we live and spend our time came from living abroad during her childhood. She spent much of her early years living oversees due to her father's work and for a while she lived in Denmark. She tells me that living in a Scandinavian country taught her a lot about sustainability and efficiency. After Denmark, the family moved to France where she finished high school and that's where she developed a certain type of wanderlust where she wanted to discover different cultures and how people lived.
"That became the thing that kind of pulled me around the world, so I studied Urban Planning," she says. "I lived in Argentina, I lived in China, I lived in India... I moved to different cities in the US... I've lived in like, fifty different places in a short period of time and so what I'm most fascinated about is how people live and there's so much power in starting to compare different geographies and say, what's the best part of living in Denmark? What's the best part of living in France? How can you start to combine those and design the life of your dreams?"
Sapone took all the things she'd gleaned from her travels and started trying to figure out how to assemble them into her picture-perfect living experience here at home in the states. She had her own frustrations with the rental market and quickly figured out that it needed some overhaul. She also knew that life was heading into a more technology-based space, where home devices would help provide conveniences to consumers. Why not combine these ideas?
"What if we could say, you're going to get max convenience, max flexibility; you're going to have a perfectly designed home," she says. "We're going to really pay attention to how you use your space and what's important to you and we're going to be here to design your lifestyle, get you back your time, and optimize for what you want to be spending your time on."
Prior to starting Alfred, Sapone also noticed that the relationships between renters and landlords were often quite tense and that usually both parties felt like they were losing. Landlords hated dealing with turnover and renters hated having their rent increased, or living in a place that wasn't in perfect working order to save money. The majority of property managers and owners were using outdated technologies to service their buildings and practically none of them were using newer tech to make their lives or the lives of their renters easier. The industry clearly needed to be disrupted and who better to do that than her team?
Alfred's philosophy was simple: help people become part of a community, incentivize them to stay in their building and help them with all the minutia of life so that they can thrive in their personal and professional lives. On the side of the landlord or property managers they wanted to help them modernize their technology and save them money by preventing high turnover rates on their units.
"We've been doing this now for seven years and it's just a stone-hard fact that an Alfred-powered building is a more valuable asset. We help landlords refinance, we help landlords lease up buildings faster, and we have some of the longest tenured residents in the business. [In] an average building 50% of the building leaves every single year. That's the standard. What we're saying to the landlord is, we're taking over your building, we're putting technology in...we're going to make it feel like it's 2022. We're also going to treat the consumer completely differently. Which is they aren't a rent check. This is a community. If you make people happy this will feel different...and it makes their investment be better."
Sapone tells me that as it stands now just less than half of Americans are renters and that for nearly all of them, their rent check is the biggest check they write each month, and as she sees it their most powerful bargaining chip. Why live in a crumby building and have your rent increase each year when you could live in an Alfred building that offers all the modern-day conveniences and incentivizes you financially to stay longer?
Sapone explains that an Alfred-powered building allows for renters to feel like they're investing in themselves and incentivizes them to feel like they are part of a bigger community. They have concierge services that can take care of everything from grocery shopping and package delivery to dog grooming. They have gym and spa facilities on property. In addition to that they facilitate community by hosting events and activities for their community members and they have a rewards program that gives renters money back when they've lived in their unit long enough.
"We had this crazy idea at Alfred, and we call it, A-Life. Every dollar of rent that you pay to your landlord, you should be getting rewarded for. The longer you stay at the property, the cheaper your rent should be. A loyalty program that's giving you more and not treating you like a second-class citizen. It's a big part of your income and it should feel like you're building something."
Sapone explains that Alfred buildings are powered by a super app that she describes as a remote control to manage everything in your life. Tenants can sign their lease on the app with their finger, they can access a list of Alfred-approved movers in the area. Tenants can also rent furniture, open a renters insurance policy, set up wi-fi and more using the app. Alfred has found the best rates and gives their tenants options. She says it's their goal to be the advocates of the renter. "The thing that really disrupted [the industry] was the idea of earning the trust of the consumer enough to be a part of every aspect of their life," she says. "And earn the right to walk past the front door and just help them with everything and get their time back."
Not only are residents getting their time back, but property owners are as well. Sapone tells me that the time that most building owners spend leasing and re-leasing their buildings each year can really affect their bottom line and that resident retention is one of the keys to staying profitable for the owners and landlords in the industry. By adding the Alfred technology to the building the building owners need fewer full-time staffers and don't need to hire them since the Alfred team already has management companies that they partner with that are trained in hospitality.
"All of the staff on site will know your name, they'll know your pet's name, they know what your goal is. They're inviting you to events," she says. "We have some of the coolest events and programing out there, whether it's learning to cave dive, or henna tattoos, learning actual interesting skills that are unique... doing a tour of a vertical farm... we're not talking about wine and cheese. We're giving you access to experiences that you can't get anywhere else. And what we find is that that yields real community, and a sense of place."
There is a feeling in our society that owning a home is superior to renting one and Sapone and her team are trying to change that perspective. She believes that it's an outdated perspective and for many people, homeownership is not the best option. Especially if you own a property that needs a lot of upkeep.
For younger generations like Millennials, (Sapone is one) who graduated into the recession, there was a huge shift in ideology as they had to pivot to fit into this new landscape of the recession era job-market. The idea of getting a corporate job, climbing the ladder, saving for a home and having a family went right out the window for many. And that trend has bled down into older generations as well over the last fourteen years. These days, people are opting to spend their money on experiential living rather than building a nest egg, so it's a nice option that those people can now feel a sense of ownership, community and accomplishment even if their home is a rental.
"The most fun part about what we do is when people move from thinking about renting as a transitory thing to being really proud to be a resident in an Alfred building," she says.
More with Marcela Sapone here: