Ever tried renting an apartment in a major city these days? If you haven’t signed a new lease in a while, the way things are done today may seem a bit, well, impersonal.
If you want to nab an apartment in a city in the US, your rental company will usually need you to submit background checks, character references, pay stubs, previous rental history, past employment, and a W-2 form. Your wallet will also get hit with an application fee and security deposit to boot.
That sounds like a lot of customer friction, doesn’t it?
The process can be even worse when dealing with a corporate entity. If you need to discuss or negotiate something, you’ll likely butt heads with customer service staff who refuse to go off-script. By the end of it all, you’re probably ready to throw in the towel and try something else.
Romanian entrepreneur Irina-Aline Constantin created her startup, VAUNT, to help residential real estate developers and agencies market properties and close deals without losing the human touch.
After designing games during high school, Irina learned software development and marketing in the corporate realm. Later, she quit her job to found three startups (that later failed) searching for something to call her own.
Finally, Irina found a niche creating websites for residential real estate developers in her hometown of Bucharest and saw a huge gap in how they ran marketing. She then built a business dedicated to creating solutions to more effectively bring in the renters they want.
Here’s how this entrepreneur teamed up with her high school best friend to create a handful of startups, failed multiple times, and came out the other end with a promising €60,000 ($68,000) ARR company. Completely bootstrapped.
Selling Virtual Items For Cash on Second Life
When Irina was 18, the Romanian market crashed in response to the 2008 recession. Everyone was strapped for cash at the time. Wanting to have some extra spending money, Irina’s first foray into the tech world was designing video game objects for real-world money.
Irina loved to play video games. She’d befriended her high school best friend, Razvan Mitre, because of a small video game group she played with regularly. Razvan was passionate about the stock market and would trade stocks in his free time. The two found they had a lot in common.
“We would talk about building businesses and things like that,” she says. “While most of our friends spent their time partying we were discussing why money is printed or how the economy works.”
Around 2008, Irina was a devoted fan of the popular video game, Second Life. In the game, players could make in-game objects and sell them for cash. Irina figured out making these items was relatively simple and they amassed a portfolio of items and money from selling them.
“Second Life in a way was like the previous metaverse,” says Irina. “When I found out about creating game items I was like, wow, that’s so cool. I’m going to learn how to do it.”
At first, she played around with game design solely for the money. However, Irina began to enjoy 3D design in general. Her portfolio of work amassed in high school landed her an internship at game studio, Ubisoft, while she was in university. She was the youngest intern there.
Irina’s time at Ubisoft helped her get a job working at Bigstep software (a competitor of AWS’s metacloud solution) when she turned 21. Ever the loyal friend, Razvan joined Irina at Bigstep as a software developer. Irina worked there for a year but found she wanted more control over her career.
“After UbiSoft, I switched to the software industry because I wanted to try the engineering part,” says Irina. “However, even at my new company I always wanted to have more control and directly contribute to the company’s vision and mission.”
Ready to start building businesses on her own, Irina convinced Razvan to quit Bigstep and they both began founding startups.
The Many Startups That Came Before
“Our story is a bit different from other founders who spend a decade at a multinational and then start building a startup,” says Irina. “We had the hunger to make a difference faster so we jumped straight into entrepreneurship.”
With the experience from working at Metacloud and side hustles under their belts, Irina and Razvan spent the rest of the decade trying out new projects.
Their first joint venture was a small app for mystery shopping called Kualita. Every time a customer was in a store, they could check if products were placed correctly and redeem their reward in-store if they did. Unfortunately, Irina and Razvan never found the traction they needed so the startup folded.
Their second was an app called Squired with the goal of getting bought out by OpenTable. It was a similar concept to OpenTable, an app for customers to easily book restaurant reservations. Restaurants could also use the same app to collect customer data and make better promotions. They dissolved the business after a year because they had difficulty finding a market.
“It was B2C to B sort of,” says Irina. “Not the right market.”
In 2015 they began their next venture, Aesthetic Works, that would eventually lead them to their target market. Aesthetic Works was a general digital design and branding company specialized in creating websites and other online brand features.
Irina and Razvan ran Aesthetic Works for three years and started to notice an increased number of customers in the real-estate sector. Both were heavily interested in finance and knew real estate was a lucrative industry. They decided to focus their efforts entirely here in 2018 and began laying the groundwork for VAUNT.
Cold-Calling Real Estate Businesses
To start building clientele, Razvan and Irina started by cold-calling potential customers.
“We found out that real estate developers don’t really stay on Google and search for web builders,” says Irina, “so we’d call and tell them we can get them a website live in a day.”
Irina says that more often than not, a working website in a day or two was a proposition too good to pass up for the cash-rich but indecisive real-estate developer.
“I’d say, ‘Look, you need to do sales in a different kind of way,’” she says. “Many of them were still doing banners on buildings. I told them they needed to position themselves better than their competitors.”
It wasn’t just businesses without an online presence that were interested in their service. Even the property developers with websites were frequently unhappy with what they had.
“They were sick of designing their own websites and waiting around for them to go live. They wanted to spend time selling, not designing,” says Irina. “Squarespace and Wix aren’t really designed for their niche either so they lacked simple options.”
Website building was profitable but hard to scale. There are only so many rental companies and web-building tends to be a one-off project. Irina and Razvan noticed a much more valuable solution when chatting with their clients: digital marketing.
In 2020, Irina and Razvan put their heads together for one client and came up with a solution to digitize sales for each residential project. They gave them a presentation one fateful day and struck gold.
“After the presentation, our client said, ‘I would pay for this!’” says Irina.
So again, Irina and Razvan ended their side projects and created VAUNT. It was time to build.
What VAUNT Does
Irina describes VAUNT as “the new OS of the real estate industry” – a system for selling properties and managing the sales processes of residential projects.
“VAUNT means to brag,” says Irina. “We wanted to provide people the opportunity to be proud about what they do. A large part of that is embracing the VAUNT DNA to be customer-first rather than transactional.”
VAUNT helps real estate companies revamp their sales processes. They digitize little steps like connecting to CRMs to see which months are good and bad or creating systems for sending offers and digital contracts.
“By keeping track of what happens with each client or lead, you are able to provide a better experience,” says Irina. “That means on future calls staff can speak with some familiarity with the customer even if they didn’t speak with them the previous time. The customers are the main focus, not the property.”
VAUNT also tries to create better frameworks for managing sales staff.
“We want managers to be able to track which people are performing, which aren’t, and how they can help them do better. With better sales data, they can better understand why certain months are slower. Maybe it has nothing to do with the sales staff and is instead based on other external factors. This helps them be more understanding.”
Irina says the real-estate industry was easier to understand once she realized it was similar to her chosen career path. Her experience as a founder had given her the insight many of her clients needed.
“We discovered that the real-estate industry works in many ways like a startup,” she says. “You usually have a big buy-in when you purchase or build the property and then may not have an idea of how to market the product. It gets chaotic.”
Currently, VAUNT is in its early stages. It is a small team including Irina, Razvan, and three other employees. They charge a monthly fee and work with an expanding roster of Romanian and European businesses. Irina hopes to expand the business into the US soon.
“We haven’t scaled, but right now we are looking into it. I think soon we’ll have a turning point,” says Irina.
Fall Madly in Love With Solving Problems
Irina’s time working tirelessly on multiple projects has quickly given her the perspective of a seasoned founder though she admits she did things the hard way.
“Working at a multinational for a while helps you learn operational procedures and gives you connections to colleagues in your field ,” she says. “Because we didn’t work at one, we had to learn a lot of things on our own and through failed projects. We moved slower, but we built a lot of risk tolerance and resilience.”
Reflecting on her path, Irina encourages other founders to keep pushing even if they feel overwhelmed.
“I wanted to back out some years ago when I was still learning, but I realized people were giving me money for this so I was doing something right. Working on a startup is a mental health journey. There are lots of hardships and ‘no’s from the beginning. However, because we started so young we learned some lessons we would have learned much later. Learn to accept rejection, listen actively to feedback, and don’t take anything personally,” she says.
The most important thing Irina has learned over the course of three startups is to always pay attention to customer demands.
“The most important thing you can do as a founder is fall madly in love with solving problems.”
“The most important thing you can do as a founder is fall madly in love with solving problems,” she says.
While open to funding, Irina says VAUNT is in no hurry to stop bootstrapping.
“We’re in some talks with VCs, but as a customer-led product we’re focused on solving their immediate problems day to day,” she says. “You never know what the future holds, but right now it’s all us.”
While Irina is busy as the CEO of a growing business, she and Razvan still find time in their busy schedules to play video games together just like old times.
“Make sure to still game with your co-founders, even if things get busy,” she says.
Irina’s story shows the power of momentum in the startup process. Instead of quitting when a business idea stagnated or had to end, Irina consistently took the information she’d gathered to pivot into something more profitable. So long as we are learning, we are that much closer to something big.
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