There’s a big difference between a good idea and a good business. The last company I started was for peer-to-peer outdoor gear rental. Despite having users in every state and unsolicited fans of the company writing to us almost every day to say how much they loved it, it just wasn’t a viable business
In many large cities in the US, there is a crisis caused by a shortage of affordable housing options. This has led to a host of social challenges. In this series called “How We Are Helping To Make Housing More Affordable” we are talking to successful business leaders, real estate leaders, and builders, who share the initiatives they are undertaking to create more affordable housing options in the US.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing James Rogers, CEO Torii.
Boston-based entrepreneur and software engineer James Rogers was inspired to start Torii after having a particularly awful experience in buying a home. “My dog threw up in my car and I got lost,” is what James heard over the phone as he waited for his real estate agent at a house showing they had scheduled earlier that week. The agent never showed up, and while James decided to submit an offer, he had to do it through his unhelpful agent due to the standard exclusive buyer representation agreement he had signed.
The offer was accepted, but due to issues caused by vendors involved in the purchase, he was unable to close on time and had to spend the entire weekend in a hotel. To add insult to injury, the agent was still paid thousands of dollars, despite having been little to no help throughout the entire home purchase.
As they say, necessity is the mother of invention so seeing the sorry state of traditional home purchasing, James set about to reinvent the home purchase process for his millennial generation peers, a group that is used to a swipe interface for looking at options and would really prefer to handle everything on their phones. The result was Torii, an intuitive platform that allows users to search for a property, schedule showings, submit an offer, and live chat with their dedicated agent, and the rest of their team, all from their phones.
James got his start in technology after graduating from Tufts University in 2009 and after working at and running several startups hhe joined with co-founder and COO Zach Gorman in 2017 to launch Torii, the app to right the wrongs of residential real estate. Since then, they have grown the Boston-based company to over 20 full-time employees and have received investment of 4.6M dollars to build and run their game-changing real estate app and services company.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in Maine, and from a young age during the summer I would wake up at 4am to pick strawberries and then sell them outside our house to earn spending money and save for college. Ever since then, I’ve known that it would be hard for me to do anything but build something from nothing. Prior to starting Torii, I spent the better part of a decade starting and working for consumer technology startups. Throughout that time, I was always passionate about real estate, and ultimately left my last job as a principal software engineer and sold my house to start Torii.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The main reason I started Torii was because of a horrible experience that I had buying a home. Despite having been through the process before, it was still extremely difficult. I found the home without our agent’s help, and he didn’t even come to the showing because he got lost and apparently his dog threw up in his car. We decided to buy the house, but because of the agent, we closed late. When we showed up to the house to move in, there was no water, heat, or electricity, and we had to sleep on the floor in front of a fireplace to keep the pipes from freezing. It wasn’t long after that I decided to build a company to change how the whole process works.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
I wish I could say that there were. I know that some people have that, and there is an obvious inflection point where things really accelerate for them. Personally, when I listen to interviews with successful people where they explain how rapidly things happened for them, I think they’re often discounting the many years of painstaking work that got them to a point where things could start to move like that. While I’m thrilled to have come this far, I believe that more than anything else, success requires an almost maniacal level of persistence. If you continue to work hard and learn from your failures, then something will eventually stick.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
While I love The Beatles, I think Ringo Starr could have sung it better as, “I get by with a LOT of help from my friends.” Anyone who thinks they can truly succeed alone is, simply, wrong. The number of family, friends, teachers, colleagues, and mentors that I owe for countless things along the way is too large to list.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I loved Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc. about building Pixar. The guy just knew what he wanted to do, and he never quit until he did it. He worked incredibly hard to build something that has changed millions of people’s lives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The syntax varies, but the idea that “perfection is the enemy of the good” has always resonated with me. In building almost anything, you really have no idea what “perfect” is, and so often I see founders never ship a product because they’re waiting to get it just right. Shipping early and often is, in my experience, always the best way to learn rapidly.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the shortage of affordable housing. Lack of affordable housing has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities. I know this is a huge topic, but for the benefit of our readers can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?
Brief is tough on this one, but the biggest issue is probably lack of inventory. While that may seem new and a result of the pandemic, it’s much more protracted than that. Zooming out, when quantity demanded exceeds quantity supplied, prices go up, and the list is long for why that is the case.
Housing starts plummeted with the last financial crisis, and still haven’t recovered to the levels we saw beforehand, so there isn’t enough new inventory (less quantity supplied). Continued quantitative easing (also a result of the last financial crisis) has kept interest rates low. In theory on its own, that should make housing more affordable as payments go down, but it also increases demand. Sensing a theme?
For the first several years starting Torii as a way to help Millennials buy their first home, people would ask, “but don’t they not buy homes?” Nobody is asking that now, as this generation is out in the housing market in force, and now accelerated by the pandemic, they’re more mobile in their decision-making, spreading demand across markets that were previously much less competitive.
Layer on that the mortgage-backed derivatives market is alive and well, large amounts of cheap capital are available to property investors, climate change is throwing the insurance industry out of whack, and about a thousand other factors, and you have a recipe for it being extremely challenging to buy a home. On top of all of that, now we’re now in something of a cold start problem, where people don’t want to sell their homes because they worry that they won’t be able to find something to move into after. I could go on, but once again, there just aren’t enough houses to go around at the moment.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
When you buy a home with Torii, we pay your closing costs out of the brokerage commission that we’re paid for being your agent, which saves our clients an average of about 7,500 dollars. That amount makes a huge difference.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
We get to be a small part of one of the most important decisions that people make in their lives, and we’re working incredibly hard to make that process easier. Every time I see a photo of happy clients moving into a new home and then read a glowing review they write afterward I feel an immense sense of pride in what our team has built together.
In your opinion, what should other home builders do to further address these problems?
Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?
Re-zone to allow building higher-density housing in more areas, build fast and reliable public transportation to improve accessibility, and support access to quality education so more people have equitable opportunities.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws which you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
I’ll spare getting political here because that list would be long, but in the context of the real estate industry, I’ve never understood a good reason why real estate agents cannot legally pay referral fees to unlicensed individuals. In almost every other industry, you can compensate someone for sending you business. In the real estate industry, only a licensee (even inactive) can receive payment for that. This is not consumer-friendly, it’s protectionist, and it doesn’t make sense. We should change that.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- There’s a big difference between a good idea and a good business. The last company I started was for peer-to-peer outdoor gear rental. Despite having users in every state and unsolicited fans of the company writing to us almost every day to say how much they loved it, it just wasn’t a viable business.
- Finding a team that is as invested as you are is one of the most important early decisions you can make.
- Funding does not equal success.
- Decisions that are worthwhile make you uncomfortable. The most worthwhile decisions make you want to puke.
- Just. Don’t. Quit.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Somehow convince everyone that it’s not requisite that they disagree with half of the country on literally everything. If we could do that, we could solve a lot of problems.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’ve always had Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles of Good Design stuck to my desk. If you’ve never read the list, go do it now and commit it to memory, because it applies to almost anything that you can create. I think he’s the best industrial designer ever, and I’d love to spend an afternoon with him just listening to what he has to say.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I don’t have much of a personal presence online, but you can find the company @toriihomes on social, and at https://www.toriihomes.com.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.
Really appreciate the opportunity!