Monday Jan 21, 2013 by Dennis Keohane - Contributor, VentureFizz
If you somehow end up in the back corner of RunKeeper’s headquarters on Canal Street, chances are high that you will stumble upon a scene that doesn’t quite jive with stand-up desks and mid-day stretches commonplace in the rest of the fitness app’s offices. What you will find is an alcove filled with a small band of believers, heads down, intently focused, working to create an online marketplace that brings order out of the chaos that is the equipment rental industry.
Started by the brothers Cook, Alex and Andy, Rentabilities aims to do for the problem-laden and completely unorganized world of product rental what AirBnB did for property rental. As Alex Cook points out, creating an online marketplace, like AirBnB or SpareFoot, takes not only “a ton of scrappiness,” but also, “a great deal of faith.”
The complex nature of harnessing the enormous volume and bizarre menagerie of products available for rental together in one spot was a daunting challenge from the beginning. Alex first realized that an opportunity existed to impact the entire industry while helping an acquaintance organize his small rental company’s webpage. The issues found in that first undertaking are similar to the one’s that Rentabilities continues to face to this day: outdated payment and accounting technologies, lack of organized booking systems, and the unreliability of product availability.
After winning the $50,000 prize at MassChallenge in 2010, Rentabilities has done some intense self-reflection on what kind of company they want to be. For a stretch of time after MassChallenge, Alex believes they may have tried to solve too many of the infrastructure problems of the rental industry. “On the surface, anyone in the tech industry might look at rental and think, ‘That’s a simple app.” “But in reality,” Cook states, “once you get into it, it is one of the most difficult problems I’ve encountered.”
Rentabilities is now singularly focused on being THE marketplace for rental goods. They built an aggregator that scans all of the rental products available on the internet with the goal of making all of their merchants’ goods easily discoverable, helping customers find local merchants, and making a formerly difficult process a whole lot easier.
The new approach has made a difference as the company saw an uptick in acquiring active merchants as 2012 came to a close, which is something that Cook is proud of and knows will be a key component as the Rentabilities scales. “Everything is lining up to create the world’s largest rental marketplace.” Alex stated, “For instance, right now, we have every bouncy castle in the top fifty cities in our system.”
However, as Rentabilities grows, the lessons learned thus far are proof to Cook that the process will not be easy.
“You can compare it to a boxing ring and a lot of people would have tapped out by now,” he explains. “But I’ve studied a lot of marketplaces, and although the successful marketplace companies like AirBnB, TaskRabbit, or SpareFoot, seem glorious on the surface, when you really dig into their stories, those founders were in boxing rings and may still be.”
Rentabilities is midway through its own prize fight. Tenaciously battling for the success of their company in 2013, they looking less like a contender and more like another champion of the Boston startup scene.