Nathan Miller of Rentec Direct: “You must love what you do”

Location. Nowadays, so many businesses can be operated from almost anywhere in the country, even the world. Gone are the days where people loved working in the big city with the two hour commute, air pollution, elevators, and germs. Good, valuable employees want to live where they can enjoy their favorite activities, which often is […]

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Location. Nowadays, so many businesses can be operated from almost anywhere in the country, even the world. Gone are the days where people loved working in the big city with the two hour commute, air pollution, elevators, and germs. Good, valuable employees want to live where they can enjoy their favorite activities, which often is in more rural areas.


As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nathan Miller.

Nathan Miller is a landlord, real estate investor and entrepreneur. In 2009 he founded Rentec Direct, a cloud-based property management software company for real estate professionals. Today he works with more than 16,000 landlords and property managers across the country, providing them with automation software and education to effectively and efficiently run their property management businesses.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I have a bit of a nontraditional background and actually didn’t go to college. I taught myself computer programming in my free time and was able to work my way up the ladder of a wireless billing software company over the years, starting in a computer repair position and eventually moving into a CTO role in my late twenties. During this time, I started investing in real estate and managing the rental properties myself, which sparked the idea for Rentec Direct. At that point it was purely a hobby to save myself (and others like me) time when managing rental properties.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

I had invested in several rental properties and was managing them on my own as I could not afford property management at that time. Every month, I found myself juggling stacks of receipts and manual data entry, futilely trying to manage multiple properties using spreadsheets. I knew there had to be a simpler solution, and I knew there must be other landlords facing similar struggles. Unfortunately, all of the available property management applications at the time were either broadly unhelpful or outrageously expensive. So, fueled by a whole lot of coffee and a drive to help other stressed out landlords, I started writing code for version one of Rentec Direct in the early mornings before my full-time day job. At that time it was never intended to be a company, purely just a tool to help myself and others through some tedious tasks.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

My background meant I knew what was possible in an application, and therefore I knew that if I could finish this project, there was no question that it would save landlords and property managers a ton of precious time. I had the vision, capability and drive to make it happen, but what I was missing was the time to do it. I was committed to my full-time job, where I was easily spending 60+ hours a week. That left me with very little time to work on my project, and I certainly didn’t have the budget to hire anyone to help.

What happened was I found myself so excited about the potential of what Rentec Direct could accomplish that my eyes would be wide open around 3am each day with a drive to get up and work on it. There was no way I could fall back asleep because every day I had a new idea on how to solve a problem or make the application better. So, with my trusted coffee pot and a quiet corner to work in while the rest of the house slept, I made consistent progress each morning and sacrificed a few too many weekends. Ultimately I was able to commit enough time to release the product for public use, completely free. And that was the beginning of it all!

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

I’m so grateful that my passion project has grown into what it is today — Rentec Direct is the third largest property management software solution in its sector, serving 16,000 landlords and property managers managing more than 520,000 units. As Rentec Direct has grown over the years, so have the offers from outside investors looking to capitalize on our company’s success and incentivize us to grow faster. Since the beginning, it has been a priority for me to develop Rentec on my own time and my own dime, and today I am proud to say that Rentec is 100% organically grown and debt-free. We continue to make advancements in customer experience, innovation and technology and will always make decisions based on the best interest of our clients and the industry.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Our first employee could probably tell this story better than me, but I’ll give it a go. When Rentec was still in its infancy, we had released our PRO edition and started earning a modest revenue, but the support and sales workload was too much for me to handle part-time via email. I wanted to provide phone support and give better service than the “I’ll get back to you within 24 hours” email support I was providing at the time. So I put together a listing for our first employee. It went something like this: “New software company needs somebody to answer phones and emails, do sales, support clients, and handle my correspondence while I’m away. No base, no benefits, commission only position. Must be local.”

When I look back today at that ad I can’t imagine how I ever got anyone to respond. But low and behold one person did respond, cautiously, and decided to give Rentec a chance. Our very first employee is now our longest employee, celebrating over 10 years with Rentec Direct.

I’m not sure if I can say I learned much of a lesson from this experience because I ended up with one of the best employees I could imagine. But, if I were to do it over again, I would have written the job description with a little more care as I imagine I scared off a lot of potential employees who might have applied.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Customer service has and will always be one of our core values, and I think it’s what sets Rentec Direct apart from our competitors. Our Client Success team is dedicated to building lasting relationships with our clients and addressing their individual needs rather than adhering to traditional call-center metrics like quotas and call times. We take real customer feedback and requests and translate them into updates and new features for our software that will improve user experience and make life easier for our clients. Because of this model, our software is consistently the highest-rated and easiest to learn property management solution on the market.

We have a long-time client who over the years has increased her property management portfolio from 56 to 734 properties. She came to us recently and shared that she was struggling with paying property owner proceeds, and that her current method was confusing and extremely time consuming. Within a week, our team was able to build the client a custom tool that she (and our other clients!) could use to increase efficiency and save her valuable time. She was so thrilled to solve a problem that she had been struggling with for years. This is why we do what we do.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Love what you do, believe in your product, and provide true value to your clients. If any of these are not the case, I believe that your business is doomed to fail. A few ways I measure this:

  • On Monday morning, am I excited to get to work? Is there something exciting for me to work on?
  • Is our product helping people save time or money?
  • Does the cost of your product save your customer at least 10 times as much in time or money than it is costing them to use it?

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Remember the full-time job I talked about earlier? The owner of that company was Todd Grannis. Todd had started the computer company and the internet company that hired me and he shared a lot of knowledge with me, and gave me chances to grow and learn about business while working for him. Todd also encouraged me to buy my first house. Without the opportunities and encouragement he provided me, I may not have the business skills and technical knowledge that I have today, which has empowered me to start my own company.

Todd always told me when we were working together that becoming a minister and officiating a wedding was on his bucket list. After I moved on to my own company, we remained loosely in touch, but we also lived halfway across the globe from each other. It’s difficult to retain much of a connection when there’s 15,000 miles between you, but when I was getting married, I asked him if he would be willing to get ordained and be the officiant for our wedding. He accepted, and did the best job imaginable. We both got to check a box on our bucket list that day.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

We work with a little more than 16,000 landlords and property managers right now, but our platform also serves tenants and property owners. This year alone, we’ve had over 150,000 distinct logins to our platform from landlords, property managers, tenants, and property owners.

Slow and steady wins the race. We have a proven formula of providing a product at a competitive price and treating our clients extremely well. Pretty much every review site out there in our industry ranks Rentec Direct at the very top for client satisfaction, and that is because we really take the time to make sure we’re caring for our clients.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

In the early days, my intention was simply to use the software I had built for my own property management needs, but I quickly realized there must be other landlords and property managers facing the same challenges. I took a risk and offered the first version of Rentec Direct for free, but soon I began receiving feature requests and support calls from property managers using the software with hundreds of units. As more people started using Rentec Direct and the software continued to evolve, it was time to change the structure of the company to accommodate the time and energy I was putting in to answer support questions and develop new features. Rentec Pro was introduced as a monthly subscription based software for landlords, and Rentec PM followed shortly as a monthly subscription based software for property managers.

A free application of Rentec Direct is still available as Rentec Basic. Subscription prices are based on the number of units a landlord or property manager has in their portfolio, so as new units are added to a client’s account, subscription revenue increases.

The primary alternative monetization model that most companies use involves ads. Pretty much every blog you go to today will give you one, two, or three intrusive popup messages giving you either a “subscribe now” or “no thanks, I hate making money” option that you have to get through before you can access the content. I’ve never liked that model, and therefore we’ve never deployed it. In contrast to pretty much everything else, our educational blog is 100% ad free, and contains material written by industry professionals.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.

I’m going to skip the answers you hear from everybody else (team, mission, culture, etc.) and try to go a little outside the box here…

  • You must love what you do. You have to love what you are doing, otherwise you are going to prematurely burn out. If you are starting a company just because, chances are you either won’t succeed due to lack of passion, or will exit early. Again, ask yourself on Monday morning if you are excited to go to work? If the answer is YES, then you will probably have success.
  • Your product has to either save somebody money or time and/or entertain them. I’m not very good at entertainment, so we’ll just talk about money and time. If you sell a product that costs $100, you need to be saving your customer a multiplier of $100. We pick 10x, so a $100 monthly subscription has to save our clients $1000 every month in order for me to feel like we are achieving the level of value that I want to see. This isn’t only necessary for your sales people to succeed, but for your company to succeed long term.
     — In our case, we choose 10x because I figure that’s about two times better than anybody else in our market. When somebody asks us about our value proposition it’s so overwhelmingly obvious how much time and money we will save them, that the product literally sells itself. In 12 years of business we’ve never done outreach or cold calls, all our business comes to us.
  • Funding. Although it is not the path we chose, it’s very popular these days to take on funding in the startup stage. After all, it’s very difficult to pass up a $1 million or $10 million investment, cha-ching! It’s a legitimate way to start a business, but I would say to anybody reading this: when you take on that type of investment, who is the real boss? Even if it’s only a 20% or 30% investment, it sure sounds like you maintain control; however, that is rarely the case. You still have benchmarks to meet and goals to achieve for your investors, which often do not parallel your own. Plus those investors will want to exit and take with them a multiplier of their investment. If you want to focus on good support at the cost of revenue, I promise they will take issue with it. 
     — My story about this is pretty simple. I get no less than five emails and calls per day from various VC firms wanting to invest in Rentec Direct. They get so creative with their emails, but it all boils down to the same message in different words. For a while I deleted them, archived them, even marked them as spam so they couldn’t email me any more. But they continue to flow in to this day. Now I just treat it as a welcome reminder of our success, even though I don’t reply to any of them.
  • Culture. I promised not to talk about the same things that everybody else does, but I do want to touch on a bit of culture. You see startups in the Bay area and elsewhere start out with an intention to keep an amazing culture in their company, but inevitably lose it. It’s because you can’t write culture into a policy manual or put a table in the middle of the office and expect everybody to eat lunch at it every week. You have to continually work on culture and it has to come from the very top.
     — As a small example, I see companies purchase ping pong tables, foosball tables, and other games and place them in their office. At first everybody loves it — there are daily games, tournaments, laughter and joy. But eventually everybody gets busy, and I’ve seen companies with a ping pong table sitting unused for months. To keep the joy and laughter happening is up to the leadership. In our case, we have monthly tournaments of various games and activities, and the winner gets the CEO’s (my) parking spot for the entire month. In the two years since we’ve been at our new HQ, I’ve only gotten to park there a handful of months, and it was only because I happened to be lucky enough to win the tournament that month. That’s right, you can’t just have the employees in the games, you have to be playing it with them.
  • Location. Nowadays, so many businesses can be operated from almost anywhere in the country, even the world. Gone are the days where people loved working in the big city with the two hour commute, air pollution, elevators, and germs. Good, valuable employees want to live where they can enjoy their favorite activities, which often is in more rural areas. We were lucky because we started our company in Southern Oregon where activities and nature are abundant. If you are starting a company and think you have to start it in Silicon Valley or New York, think again. The most valuable people, including yourself, probably don’t want to be stuck there forever.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

OK, this is going to sound a bit silly but bear with me. My wife and I always talk about the “cookie foundation.” It all stemmed from one time when we were lucky enough to fly a cross-country trip in first class. On the flight, all of the first class passengers got warm, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies — a mouth watering treat. As the flight attendants were baking the cookies, the delicious smell of warm cookies wafts throughout the entire cabin, well beyond the first class seats. So everyone in economy is hit with the aroma of freshly baked cookies, but doesn’t get to enjoy them. It felt really unfair.

When the flight attendant came by with our cookies, we asked if she would give the cookies to the first two children she could find in the economy cabin. She went along with it, and we got to hear some very excited kids back there. On our second flight we were planning to do the same thing, but we got to talking and thought about the fact that more kids were likely sitting nearby watching some kids get cookies while they did not. We thought this would make the other children feel even worse, so we decided not to send the cookies back this time, but created the idea of the cookie foundation because every kid on the plane should be able to enjoy those delicious cookies.

Every child who cannot regularly enjoy freshly baked cookies should be able to. The cookie foundation would find a way to deliver warm cookies to every child on the planet who hasn’t had them…someday. It won’t solve the hunger crisis or world peace, but it will bring a little bit of joy to our amazing children.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Visit us at RentecDirect.com, on social media @rentecdirect, or follow me on Twitter @HiTechLandlord.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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