My conversation with Ben Pleat from Doorbell made me simultaneously hopeful and impressed. Hopeful because innovators like Ben are creating amazing products like Doorbell, a “turnkey community management tool” that empowers landlords to boost NOI while offering their residents a fun and differentiated apartment experience. Impressed because he was so articulate and accomplished while still a student at Harvard. When I transcribed my interview I winced at how many times I asked about how it was that he was working with the Harvard Innovation Lab. The answer was that he and his co-founder are Harvard undergrads. I think back on my time in college and, from what I can remember, I certainly wasn’t tackling important issues like community engagement. I think I was more concerned on which bar had the best drink special that night. But, enough about me.
Ben grew up in a tight-knit suburb of Long Island, staring at the New York City skyline. He dreamt that he would move there one day and get a taste of the big city culture. When he finally got a chance to live in Manhattan, following the urbanization trend of many in his demographic, he was confronted with a harsh reality. “I loved my neighborhood, but after two years I didn’t know one other person in my building,” he told me.
This experience was highlighted in contrast with his move to Boston to attend Harvard. “The dorms are called ‘houses’ and they are bastions of community. The activities that happen at these houses turn the space from a dorm into a community and create a sense of belonging.” This got Ben thinking about the possibility of creating something similar outside of a college setting.
His passion for cities and the interaction between real estate and tech only grew after he interned at WeWork, now a giant in the co-working space. “I have not seen another company replicate the sense of excitement and community that they [WeWork] brought to a physical space,” he said. From here he started to craft the idea that eventually became Doorbell.
“We looked at a bunch of other co-living models and just didn’t think they were all that scalable,” explained Ben.
“Companies would change the physical spaces, adding more common areas and expect that to create the community. We saw that the interaction in the space as the most important thing. Plus, the cost of TIs [tenant improvements] and the time it takes to do these build outs was prohibitive. So our mission was to try to bring a sense of community in the buildings without physically changing the space.”
Companies would change the physical spaces, adding more common areas and expect that to create the community. We saw that the interaction in the space as the most important thing.
Ben has realized something that developers have been getting wrong for the last 30 years. Amenities don’t make for a good living space, experiences do. The first image that came to my mind was a swimming pool. Except for kids and lap swimmers, most people don’t use a pool for an extended amount of time. So, the pool itself is not an asset. But, almost everyone enjoys being by a pool, if the conditions are right. You add music, a barbecue and maybe a water volleyball game and suddenly you have an experience. While tenants might not pay directly for this experience, the goodwill that comes from it has lasting value.
Doorbell is Ben’s way of turning pool into a party. It is a platform for tenants to connect, but it doesn’t stop there. His team curates events and works to build a community. “We are constantly using data to determine what kind of events get the best turnout. Then, when the event is over we encourage residents to communicate afterwards.” He has already rolled out the service in 6 apartment buildings – 483 apartment units – in Downtown Worcester and has seen quite a bit of traction. “We have seen a lot of residents start to create events on their own, which means that a community is starting to form.” He was surprised by how these communities were not solely comprised of 18-35 year olds, but from all age demographics. Apparently, young professionals and grandmas like pool parties too.
Doorbell’s first six buildings – located in the heart of Downtown Worcester’s Grid District – also offer the team an opportunity to work with other stakeholders in New England’s second largest city on a burgeoning urban revitalization project.
“We’re beyond excited to be a part of Worcester’s growth. We see our mission to make life at the Grid District as amazing as possible for residents as central toward bringing even more energy, innovation, and millennials to the heart of Downtown Worcester,” Pleat said.
As Doorbell looks to grow its customer base of residential landlords and expand into nearby cities the company is also adding new features. By partnering with nearby businesses, Doorbell will be able to provide discounts (“building perks”) for its users and an invaluable hyper-local tool for retailers to interact with repeat customers that live within blocks of their storefronts. Imagine you didn’t even have to work the grill at your pool party, instead getting authentic tacos from around the corner at a reduced price.
When I asked him why he started his company in Boston and not in a bigger city like New York his answer was telling. “Boston is the most supportive startup community in the world. We could not have chosen a better community to start and grow our company.” In the same way that Ben hopes Doorbell can create loyalty to buildings, his experiences starting a business with the help of the iLab and a supporting community has made Ben a die-hard Bostonian. It just goes to show, it pays in the long-run to nurture community, in buildings and in business.