The adventures of a husband and wife entrepreneur team
This week, we had the pleasure of welcoming Roberto & Elisse Moreno into the Rainforest to talk about their adventures in business, in life, in love and with kids.
Since, this is a talk about more than their business journey, they felt it was important to set the scene with how they first met and how the early lessons they learned set the foundation (or stage) for their life/business path.
Hello salsa! One way to heat up a relationship is to take it to the floor, where they met salsa dancing and in less than 8 months of their relationship went on to perform internationally. More so than that, was what they learned from the “art” of dancing together. While, one might consider it is all about “lead vs. follow” or the “guy is in charge”, it is actually about finding balance and maintaining the right level in any partnership to propel the opportunities for success. Their is a constant tension, that if kept balanced will allow each person to flourish and make each other look good.
This is true, whether in a marriage like theirs but also in any relationship including a business partnership or working with an investor. In the second year they met, they went on to launch Divertido.ca, their first venture together that “redefined what networking is all about by creating extraordinary events that go beyond the typical business mixer.” They attribute the time they ran this company to be both exhausting, hosting over 24 events in 2 years, beneficial from a “getting to know” many amazing Edmontonians and ultimately not the wisest decisions from a financial and business side. While they did have a good mix of sponsors, it really was more of a side hustle in the end versus a full time gig.
It did give them another outlook to see that they could work together, so when the opportunity came up that they could work together they decided to leap in, with taking over Redman Technologies Inc. Founded as a family enterprise, over time Elisse & Roberto took over the full operations and ownership of the company. Family transitions are never easy and a key lesson whether working with/alongside family members or other partners, is to evaluate the length of time of a buyout plan or change will take and how this will impact the decisions you can make on a daily basis. The synergy of this business was ideal for them, as they both were passionate about technology and real estate, Roberto coming from a high level corporate job in tech and Elisse with her background in real estate her entire life.
The trouble with jumping feet first in a business that isn’t “brand new” though is that you have other challenges: how do you keep the customers happy, while making big changes? How do you innovate while having existing technical debt? How do you expand and grow beyond your current capacity with limited resources?
Redman allowed them to further grow a company before “SaaS” was a popular term. Of course, in the process of building a business, Elisse & Roberto had to be mindful of going back to “balancing” when and how the business impacted their daily lives. Elisse described it as “knowing when and how to compartmentalize things” For example, just because you have a frustration at home or work, doesn’t mean it is fair to the business or relationship to carry that energy or thoughts into the other aspect of your life. Roberto also mentioned that it is important to know your strengths, that you are both working towards the same common goal, however, focus on different aspects of the business to get there.
After 15 years at the helm of Redman, Elisse decided she needed a change. She still loved real estate and technology, however she was tired of sitting on the sidelines and missed the other side of real estate, helping fulfill people’s goals of home-ownership. When one person is ready to “move on”, it could easily feel like getting divorced, Roberto joked, however, by ensuring that Elisse’s role or any role in the company can be fulfilled by another person is extremely important. Maybe, to one’s ego hearing the phrase “everyone’s replaceable” doesn’t feel good, however, as Elisse pointed out, you need and want to be replaceable in order to allow the business to grow and move forward.
By launching her consumer facing brand of real estate, TruHome, it gave both Elisse and Roberto the opportunity to re-imagine what “real estate could be like”. How could we make the agents and consumers lives better? How could we make a positive impact on the role REALTORS bring to the table? And ultimately, for Elisse & Roberto - how can we bring more fun, joy and creativity into our lives” As, Roberto mentioned “we are idea people, we are passionate about asking the “what ifs” and looking out to what we can make happen.”
From these questions, Elisse, Roberto and their team became more heavily focused on the R&D side of real estate, launching both a consumer facing app called “TruHome Match”, that allows consumers to be matched to homes based on their lifestyle needs, but more exciting was their journey into launching Gabbi.Ai. TruHome Match lacked the depth of scalability, however, Gabbi.Ai, allows realtors to “capture more leads and close more deals with an AI assistant that never sleeps”.
During their journey from launching TruHome to getting to Gabbi.Ai, they talked about seeking angel founding. Imagine, going to 3 cities in 3 days, with not only your business partner/husband, but also your 10 month old son, one of your good friends and their 6 month old daughter - talk about logistics and insanity. Despite the chaotic travel arrangements, lack of sleep and loss of jewelry, they made it happen and while they weren’t fruitful in their efforts to obtain funding, it was a life lesson in scalability they will not forget. Sometimes aspects of a business/idea are good, however they may not be the “perfect storm” and it is okay to go back to the drawing board to rethink the possibilities.
Another thing to remember is that not all investors are the right investors for you. Being in the real estate realm, they realized they were better off going to pitch to people who are involved in the industry or who are passionate about investing in Proptech. Be sure to travel a lot and go to the places where your industry has the highest chance for opportunities. Not every idea is right for Silicon Valley or New York for example.
It’s all about getting out and building your network - not necessarily moving away from Edmonton. It’s also important to share your ideas, and worrying less about people wanting to compete against you.
TruHome continues to run, however, from the technology side, Elisse/Roberto continued to move forward with Gabbi and looking at specific day to day challenges agents face in particular in terms of communication. Gabbi is a way to help an agent be better at what they do. Unlike a traditional crm, gabbi is the primary communication app for an agent, bringing phone, text, email and then layering AI to assist the agent further. The idea is to be able to obtain data passively and then making it more useful.
One practical example of how Gabbi specifically helps an agent in their day-to-day lives is through the Gabbi showbot module that allows a realtor that works with many buyers to solve one of their main pain points: scheduling showings. If a buyer wants to view a bunch of homes, it would normally be a manual process for the agent to route, schedule and book each property, taking significant time out of one's day. Through the Gabbi showbot module, the agent simply enters the listing ids, and AI through natural language processing via text can schedule on behalf of the agent. This saves the team 15-20% of their time.
In the process of building Gabbi, they had both ups and downs from obtaining some key grants to help their company grow, to hiring more staff with a barely 2 week old baby by their side. They joke, that they tend to make massive strides in their business when they are expecting a baby, now with 2 little boys under 3 in the picture, life is busy and full. Each day is a new challenge, but they know that to make positive change, they need to continue to push forward, jump in and keep going.
To gain more traction and feedback, the next step this past year was to head down to key technology conferences and events in the real estate space, which happened to be in San Francisco this year to not only pitch but also showcase Gabbi in some key start-up alley opportunities. The pressure was on with Elisse joining the team for the first conference at 26 weeks pregnant. The second time, Roberto had to head back down alone, to the NAR Innovation Summit, since traveling for Elisse became a liability at 32 weeks. For those that don’t know, a pregnant woman can’t get travel insurance after 32 weeks - another hurdle women entrepreneurs face. These efforts in the end paid off both in terms of feedback, connections and opportunities.
Through this and other efforts this year, Redman Tech and Gabbi have been successfully acquired. Roberto will still be leading/growing the team here in Canada, however, with the support and backing of a major USA player. While, Elisse will continue to focus her efforts on TruHome and sharing her passion for the technology industry overall.
Q: When you had Gabbi, what was your plan to make money?
A: Originally, Gabbi was intended only for TruHome as an opportunity to give them an edge, however, in the end they decided it would provide a bigger impact if it became it’s own SaaS product.
Q: How do you sell it to investors?
A: Ultimately, you have to get in front of the right type of investors for your business and idea. There are also a lot of great government initiatives and grants that can help your business push forward too. For future learning, it often makes more sense to build out a prototype and then pitch, vs. building a larger scale product.
Q: How do you protect yourself when seeking investments?
A: It really comes down to ensuring that the investor shares your same values, especially if you choose to stay involved. It’s okay to turn down deals, no matter what is offered on the table if it doesn’t feel right. Q: How long does it take took to find an investor?
A: Plan for it a year or two before you think you need the money. Start connecting early, learn what investors are looking for, do some due diligence on the investors, and make sure the investors you pick are a good fit. No amount of money is worth a bad investor, it is often harder to get out of a shareholders agreement than a marriage.
Q: How do you make yourself replaceable in your business?
A: Having kids definitely helped us get a perspective on letting go since you can't always be there. To Elisse, being replaceable means you are successful, but that doesn't mean you need to replace yourself or exit the company. Being replaceable also gives you more flexibility., makes you more investible, and gives you the flexibility to take care of yourself and your family, and also the company. After all, if something happens to the founder and your not prepared, the company would fail and your employees may not get paid.