I’m sure you’ve spent many an eye-rolling moment listening to your mom’s advice. Eat your greens. Clean your room. You’re not wearing that, are you? But moms are astute folk, and for Barrett Davis, who grew up around his mother’s realty business, her insight and experience led to them co-founding a million-dollar startup called NterNow. See? Moms are right, sometimes.
Real estate is a multi-trillion dollar industry in the US. For realtors, it’s usually commission-only, which means vacations, double-bookings, and overbearing sales techniques can impact your earnings. Barrett’s mother, Lynne Parker Davis, understood the nuances of the profession and wanted to help buyers find their dream home while helping property owners increase their buyer pool.
The main issue, Lynne argued, was vacant properties. If the realtor wasn’t available, buyers couldn’t view – and that’s not all. Over 20% of home buyers do drive-bys of vacant properties before contacting an agent: they want no-obligation viewings on their own time and without any sales pressure. But how could they offer remote viewings while keeping the property secure?
Enter Barrett: “We provide on-demand access for real estate tourists. So if you want to conduct a self-tour, as it’s known today, of a house, apartment, or condo, we can do that in a safe, secure way. We leverage smart home technology to give you instant access and it’s an independent tour without an agent. So you can tour on demand, which is our slogan.”
Problem solved, right? Wrong. Things move slowly in real estate, and it would be years before the market understood NterNow’s worth. Barrett hadn’t anticipated the toll on his mental health or family, either, with many heated debates over the dinner table and a complex transition as Lynne passed on the mantle of CEO. How did this bootstrapped family business make it?
The Dinner-Table Debates That Defined a Problem
Barrett has always admired his mom’s drive to succeed. Lynne would dash out to viewings at all times of the day, driving from one side of town to the other to sell homes to demanding buyers. Her successes and failures left an indelible mark on Barrett, which he later analyzed through an engineering lens. Could he and Lynne team up to help sell more homes?
“Starting a business with family means you have a strong bond from the start,” Barrett said. “It took years to show our value, and I don’t think other founders would’ve waited that long. But what’s also great is that my mom knew the problem inside-out. So not only did we share this strong bond but she was also a direct line to the problem and those experiencing it.”
Not everyone was happy to talk shop at the family dinner table, however. “Business and family are always intertwined,” Barrett said. “If we argued, we’d always end amicably as we’re family, but it was challenging to keep the two things separate. We’d go for dinner together and my wife would always tell me to leave business at home, but we never could.”
Nevertheless, it was these early dinner conversations that would help define the precise nature of the problem Barrett and Lynee wanted to solve. It revolved around three areas: vacant properties, realtor availability, and how to finesse the sales experience so buyers felt comfortable enough to buy. In short, they wanted to create a new customer experience.
“How do you provide remote access to homes that don’t have connectivity, meaning they don’t have cellular wifi or something like that in the home?” Barrett said. “So it’s just a vacant house. How do you let people in and out? And then, if you can get them in the door, can you give them a better tour than an agent can without sales pressure and things like that?”
You might think, “What about a pin entry lock?” – and you’re halfway there. The problem with pin locks, however, is you have to visit the property in person to reset it after every viewing, which undermines the solution. The real issue, Barrett argues, was the lack of connectivity. They had to develop a lock with a single-use code that reset automatically whenever it was used.
“I had the idea back in 2016, but the technology was very limited,” Barrett said. “There’s no cellular connectivity on our lock. Instead, we figured out a way of generating dynamic codes that changed after every use. There’s a smart lock on the home and then we generate a one-time-use pin via an app, that way the person visiting can’t re-enter without the app.”
Mobilizing Change Within a Tech-Resistant Industry
Barrett and Lynne founded NterNow in 2016 when Barrett was just 25 years old. Despite his age and inexperience, Barrett’s engineering skills were the ideal complement to Lynne’s sales and marketing expertise. Barrett would provide the technical know-how to solve the problem and Lynne would get their solution into people’s hands, or more specifically, on their doors.
“My background is in engineering and technology but my mom was heavily involved in sales and marketing and the real estate experience,” Barret said. “She was a fantastic founder to help us go from zero to one as she had the connections to get us started. We built a new category in real estate serving home-building, property management, and residential resale clients.”
Still, it was a difficult market in which to introduce new technology. On a transactional level – the level where NterNow showed its value – things moved at a glacial pace. Property takes months or even years to sell, so how could they prove their technology would generate more viewings, and ultimately, more sales, in time to build a business that stood on its own feet?
“I always talk about when we got our first customers,” Barrett said. “It took a year or two to consistently show value and to prove the problem could be solved. In our early days, it was just part-time, unpaid work. Mom and I both worked full-time jobs. But we gave some locks for free, just to prove the concept, got some influencers aboard, and then started landing larger clients.”
Relationships are the core of real estate, Barrett argues. In the years that followed those first few clients, Barrett and Lynne had to get their faces in front of property developers, those who had large portfolios of vacant properties. This meant attending trade shows and sponsoring events where they could get their smart locks into the hands of those most likely to use them.
“It’s all about relationship-building,” Barrett said. “We invest in association sponsorships where we can speak and deliver content. Trade shows are also important in real estate, especially in home building, as they’re always looking at how to do things better or cheaper. We also do B2B outbound, but it’s not nearly as effective as face-to-face networking.”
Today, finding customers isn’t as hard as it used to be. The pandemic accelerated the pace of technological change in the real estate industry, and suddenly NterNow was in pole position to help sell vacant properties without any in-person interaction. It was the right time, right place, and right solution that helped cement NterNow as a new category in real estate.
“We boomed during COVID,” Barrett said. “Typically, an agent walks you through the home, but when the pandemic hit, developers had to figure out how to sell homes without having a physical presence in the community. Although COVID ignited the self-touring trend, we’d been trying to build that category for years, so we grew around 500 percent in 2020.”
NterNow’s smart locks cost $100 per month per property. Not only do they help home buyers enter securely, but everyone else involved in the sales process: cleaners, electrical contractors, plumbers, realtors, and many others. The additional footfall wouldn’t have been possible without NterNow, at least not without the attendance of a property manager to let people in and out.
Landlords have also benefitted from the technology: “If you think about what happens when you rent a property to different people, you’ve got to change locks, check everything’s been switched off, and so on. Our technology helps lease and manage rental properties remotely, where property managers needn’t be there to let people in or change the locks.”
Leaving his Mom’s Shadow to Become a CEO Worthy of the Title
When NterNow launched, Barrett was CTO. It made sense: he had the technological prowess while his mom knew the real estate market like the back of her hand. But as Lynne got older, she knew it would soon be time to pass the reigns of the business to her co-founder and son, Barrett. It wouldn’t be an easy transition for either of them.
“I transitioned to CEO this year ,” Barrett said. “My mom is 65 now and has retired. But it wasn’t easy for her to go from being this strong entrepreneur to stepping down to let her son take over. I brought in a CEO coach to help the transition happen and I think she felt more comfortable with someone guiding me, knowing the business was in good hands.”
Barrett is no longer that green 25-year-old who founded a business with his mom. Today, he’s a leader that can manage the stress of running a bootstrapped business while also being a good father and husband – a delicate balancing act that wouldn’t have been possible without his mentor’s friendly ear.
“I have exponentially become a better CEO, father, and husband,” Barrett said. “Structured coaching helps with your spirituality, your success as a business person, and just as a person in general. I’ve grown more in the past year than I did the first four years of running my business. Not just because my business is doing better, but thanks to my coach.”
You might wonder why Barrett never tried to raise funding. It might’ve secured a multi-year runway while they proved product-market fit and he’d have had the support of mentorship from the beginning. Well, they did try to raise funding, but VCs weren’t interested in investing money into a business where family grievances might impact their bottom line.
“We tried to raise venture capital when we first started the company,” Barrett said. “They just didn’t take us seriously. I guess VCs avoid family run-businesses due to the nature of governance and what happens when family members step down or having to transition from one founder to another. We had a great business that was growing but they just didn’t see it.”
Barrett is happy to be a bootstrapped founder. It’s a tougher road, he admits, but you can go at your own pace. You’re not beholden to anyone. And better yet, you have the freedom to fail. “All of my competitors are ultra funded and probably wouldn’t survive a single downward trend. But we’re well-positioned, profitable, and have one of the best products out there today.”
As Lynne enjoys well-deserved retirement, Barrett has proven himself a more than capable CEO. What began as mother and son debating a specific problem, one in which Barrett’s mother was closely involved, has become a million-dollar business. Barrett has learned the bootstrapped way (through mistakes) but recommends a CEO coach as soon as possible.
“Everything in your life is so interconnected when you’re a bootstrapped founder,” Barrett said. “You don’t have a bunch of debt or venture funding to fall back on so you have to make accurate decisions. You have to be frugal. You have to be right more than wrong. My advice to founders is to get structured coaching as soon as you can to help you stay on the right path.”
It’s hard to pinpoint the beginning of Barrett’s story. Was it the childhood spent watching his mom sell homes? Or those occasionally fraught dinner table conversations? In any case, he’s living proof that if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, you need to listen to those closest to the problem you want to solve. Even if it’s your mom.