Two years ago, Morgan Shwanke was on a quest to find a suitable place to live near the University of San Diego, where he was a student. He never envisioned that friends and other students looked to benefit from his own meticulous search, and that he could make money helping them find housing.
"It started with me searching for my own place to live and building out this Google list of all the best places that I knew were available and rented to college students," Shwanke said.
Even after he found an apartment, queries from other students kept him updating his list. He began a service called Student Realty San Diego, helping 80 students secure leases and bringing Shwanke $50 for each, plus finder's fees from landlords of $200 to $400.
"That's when I realized there's a great opportunity here, because student housing is so competitive and it's so cyclical," Shwanke said.
Seeing growth potential, he developed the OnMyBlock platform during his last year at USD, launching a test website in early 2013 for USD students. Since Shwanke's graduation, the online service has expanded to include listings around all the colleges in San Diego and a few in San Luis Obispo.
On the website, renters can select from a list of campuses, and are directed to an interactive Google map plotting out properties in the area. Rolling over a selected block, a menu appears, showing properties and providing pictures and an availability status. When a property seems worth learning about, visitors can click for more information, including reviews from others who have lived there. The full listing gives options for making offers and contacting landlords.
The company's story is one of rising from nearly nothing to earning its own chance to succeed.
Initial funding for OnMyBlock came almost exclusively from business plan competitions. Shwanke took home $10,000 in 2013 from USD's annual Entrepreneurship Competition, $300 from the San Diego Entrepreneur Day awards and $10,000 from San Diego Venture Group.
Within the past month, the company finalized an $800,000 investment. The transaction details haven't been made public yet. Shwanke noted only that the investors are in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The new funding is already making its impact, as OnMyBlock's headquarters has been moved to the Bay Area. Eyeing a potential expansion that could be nationwide someday, Shwanke plans to build out his team beyond its existing eight people, particularly in the company's development, design and sales teams.
"We're still trying to perfect the model at a smaller level of schools," Shwanke said. "We'd rather do very, very, very well at a small number of schools than to do OK at a larger number."
OnMyBlock has already developed an iPhone application, but Shwanke wants to push the company toward the "next level." He defines that as having the ability to raise a higher valuation round of Series A investment. To get there, he looks to perfect the service's booking process in the next few months.
"Up to this point, OnMyBlock was a lead-generation business. But then once (students) found a place, they would contact the landlord and everything else — all the communication, signing the lease, paying the rent — would take place offline. We want to play a role in that transaction."