Mondev sons’ AI startup scratching a real estate itch
Jordan Owen struck gold during the early days of Covid. While so many businesses met their demise at record pace, Owen’s online business exploded in popularity.
It all happened after Covid forced the 26-year-old to return to Montreal from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was doing a grad degree at MIT. He opted out of returning to the prestigious university, albeit via an online curriculum. He didn’t sign up for that. And who can blame him? Part of MIT’s allure involves actually being there.
So, Jordan and his brother Mark, 28, kept busy. They moved fast, setting up the mask brand Bien Aller, and selling over 350,000 masks in under six months. They gave $100,000 of the profit to charities, funnelling the rest into their new venture.
Now, the brothers are building out a novel technology platform called SquareFeet.ai. It’s helping real estate developers accurately price their units using artificial intelligence (AI). Think of it like a Hopper for real estate developers.
The Owen brothers are the sons of the family that built Mondev, the notable Montreal real estate development company. Mondev was founded by their dad, David and their uncle, Michael. Jordan spent four years working for Mondev after graduating from McGill University in finance before heading to MIT.
The Owen brothers chose Bien Aller as a clever moniker, referencing the city’s fervent collective enthusiasm during Covid’s peak hysteria.
The venture became very successful in a short period of time, at the right time. People bought a lot of their masks. Bien Aller’s popularity grew so large that at one point it had 20,000 outstanding orders.
“People loved the idea that we were local and that we were donating. We upped our capacity and our sales exploded,” said Jordan.
The brothers needed to build out a more robust fulfillment platform. As luck would have it, a computer programmer named Benoit Thibault showed up at Bien Aller’s offices looking for his next opportunity. The 29-year-old built out the fulfillment platform on Python, using help from Shopify’s backend.
Armed with a small runway from Bien Aller’s profits, Jordan, Mark, Thibault and a fourth cofounder, 28-year-old Sean Tasse, set their sights on a market they’re pretty familiar with: real estate.
SquareFeet uses a series of datasets and algorithms to recommend real-time, dynamic pricing for real estate developers looking to maximize revenue. The AI combs through datasets, recommending how a given unit should be priced. The software also provides a sales tracking tool for developers.
“The mask business is really what helped us bootstrap SquareFeet,” said Jordan. The profits from Bien Aller bought the company about six months of payroll.
During that time, the group targeted government and university programs and grants and applied at incubators and tech programs. This continues to provide the bulk of the company’s current bank account.
And make no mistake about it: the founders of SquareFeet.ai are highly-connected individuals targeting a niche in which they have specific expertise in. One imagines that acquiring future growth capital to fuel the business will not be a challenge.
What are the pain points?
Jordan has been “speaking real estate development my entire life.” Growing up in this atmosphere allowed him to understand the inner-workings of the industry, and ultimately the pain points that lead to the idea for SquareFeet.
“Pricing these new development projects is extremely complicated because real estate has unique assets,” said Jordan. “Every building has a different location and amenities. Every unit has different views, layouts, spaces, kitchen design. All these things are unique for every unit and property.”
Another issue is that real estate developers need to constantly assess all this market data coming in through listing platforms and it’s often not possible to do it manually. “There’s just too much data,” he said.
Finally, if a developer makes just a fractional change in their price, if they’re off by just one percent, they’ll leave hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table.
“Just a tiny percentage of optimization could lead to massive value generation,” said Jordan.
Just like the Montreal-made Hopper app suggests dynamic air travel pricing for users, SquareFeet does the same for real estate developers, given demand, timing and other factors.
How is Montreal’s real estate market doing, by the way?
One might ask if it’s the right time to start this business after Covid shook up Montreal’s real estate market.
While rental values have fallen, condo prices have actually risen.
“Covid is a great time to start this business because people are very hungry to make money now that the market has been destroyed,” said Jordan. “Knowing the real price at any given point is extremely important, so people are very receptive when we tell them we have real time market analytics for their new projects.”
To date the team has signed up six clients, all of which are major real estate developers in Montreal. Their target client is currently for new developments, but this can change.
“It’s a step in a massive real estate tech market. There’s tons of value in real time data for these developers,” Jordan said.
SquareFeet wants to focus on maximizing customer service for the existing customers before the team takes on larger development firms with large project pipelines. They’ve promised the software for their clients by March.
“We’re want to serve our clients really well and make sure the product is what we promised,” he said.
SquareFeet expects to start generating more revenue in March. Then they’ll scale operations and hire more staff.
When Jordan speaks, it doesn’t come off as conceited. It rather comes off as someone who’s ready to deliver something that his industry can really use.
“It’s an easy sell. Everyone we talk to wants to be onboarded. We just don’t have the capacity yet. We’ll start ironing out a lot of the processes in March once we test the scaleability and then we’ll onboard new clients.”
Provided all this goes well, and we don’t experience another life-changing pandemic, it seems like the guys are ready for a big 2021.
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