Some more consolidation afoot in the online property space. RentPath — a search company focused on the property vertical that owns properties like Rent.com — is paying $13 million in cash to acquire Lovely, a startup that has developed a platform for consumers to search, apply for, and pay for rented apartments and houses. The news is going to be made public later today.
Lovely is joining a property-focused owner in more ways than one. RentPath itself is fully owned by TPG, the private equity firm that has its eye on other accommodation-related investments. Specifically, it’s reportedly leading (and may have actually already closed, from what I hear) a funding round $400 million – $500 million for Airbnb, the online service that lets people post and book short-term sofa, bedroom and house stays. That round values Airbnb at some $10 billion. It’s not clear how and if TPG would try to leverage these different investments off of each other, but you can see where synergies might sit longer term.
Lovely will continue to operate out of San Francisco as a standalone brand, while the team also starts to look at how it can apply some of its existing technology and yet-to-launch ideas across the rest of the portfolio, although it’s not committing to describing just what that might mean.
“I will have an additional leadership position within RentPath and we’ll be in charge of consumer-facing products,” Lovely co-founder and CEO Blake Pierson told me. “At the same time I’ll start to work with other parts to optimise them as well.” The listings-focused businesses that are the mainstay of RentPath today, he says, “don’t have a platform for making payments or applying for places,” he tells me, so integrating that to better compete against the likes of Trulia and Zillow “is definitely something on the table and that we’re thinking about.” There will be one integration that is already starting today, though: ApartmentGuide.com, one of RentPath’s properties, will be feeding its building data covering 20,000+ buildings, on Lovely.
For RentPath, this will be a way of kickstarting its business and putting itself to play closer to where money is exchanging hands in the rental ecosystem, rather than on the sidelines of simply facilitating connections through search and listings. (In effect, this makes it not unlike what Google does when it enhances its basic search features with purchasing and delivery options.)
“Lovely has done an amazing job at designing products for desktop and mobile devices that simplify the renting process and offer innovative solutions for renters and property managers,” Charles Stubbs, CEO of RentPath, which is based near Atlanta, GA, said in a statement. “This acquisition illustrates RentPath’s commitment to delivering the best consumer experience and redefining how renters find the perfect place to live. We are excited to welcome Lovely to the RentPath family.”
RentPath has an interesting history that speaks to where Lovely may fit strategically. RentPath used to be called Primedia when it owned a much larger range of magazines and other publishing assets. Under TPG, who bought the company in 2011 for $525 million, Primedia rebranded to its current name in 2013 as it streamlined its offerings to online-only only publications focusing just on property. From an old portfolio covering dozens of print magazines, RentPath’s main assets today are Rent.com (acquired from eBay for $145 million), ApartmentGuide.com, Rentals.com, NewHomeGuide.com, and RentalHouses.com.
If those site names sound a bit indistinguishable from each other, that could point to where Lovely will help them stand out better. The company, under co-founders Blake Pierson and Doug Wormhoudt, has developed an online and mobile platform that lets landlords list properties in an easily searchable database, accept online applications from would-be renters, and then provide a platform for aftercare, specifically around paying monthly rent. The system makes it easier not just for landlords to handle rentals, but for individuals who may be sharing accommodation, or applying for several places at one time.
These sorts of features are not available across RentPath’s properties today, so the opportunity for what RentPath could do with those features is there. The sites collectively attract about 7 million unique monthly visitors today from across the U.S. Lovely has not released comparable traffic numbers, but Pierson has provided a few others: it has had 300,000 mobile app downloads (“with NO paid advertising to-date” although he says that customer acquisition will now get a boost); 40% month over month growth from December through February; 150,000 renter profile accounts (i.e. Lovely “Renter Cards”) created on Lovely; processing over $30 million in annual rent payments; over 12,000 landlords accounts on Lovely Pro; 15.4 million listings indexed via Lovely Pro and data partnerships.
What that also demonstrates is that what Lovely has put into place will get a much-needed boost in scale under its new owner — a sign of why Lovely chose to take the exit route rather than raise more funding (it doesn’t disclose how much it has raised from investors to date).
Lovely itself was borne out of a scrappy — or should I say “scrape-y” beginning: it started life as one of the many services that helped people search listings on Craigslist by scraping Craigslist data and then presenting it in a new format.
Craigslist, one of the very biggest for apartment and other listings in the U.S., is notoriously retro in how it presents information. However, more recent developments have seen Craigslist get up to speed in how it controls its own data, and also clamp down on those who repurpose it, by sending out cease & desist orders and in some cases lawsuits.
In fact, Lovely is among the sites that have been named in Craigslist suits because it uses data from 3Taps (a key offender, in Craigslist’s estimation). 3Taps’s CEO and founder Greg Kidd also happened to be an investor in Lovely, to add another twist to things.
Pierson told me today that although that lawsuit is still ongoing, this is not an issue for RentPath. “Litigation is a normal cost of doing business when you are trying to disrupt a big space,” he said. “We are all on the same page.”
Lovely continues to use 3Taps listings on its platform, but none of the data comes from Craigslist, he tells me. “And we will continue to use 3Taps going forward,” he says.