Doorbell Makes Apartment Buildings Feel Like Home
As a kid growing up in a suburb of Long Island, Ben Pleat would often fantasize about living amidst the never-ending excitement of New York City. Then one day, when Pleat was a teenager, his mom announced the family would be moving into an apartment building in Manhattan.
But Pleat realized shortly after moving that things weren’t as perfect as he’d expected. Even as he was surrounded by fun things to do, he missed the feeling of being part of a tight-knit community like in his hometown.
“I noticed it was actually an extremely isolating experience,” Pleat says. “Especially when I moved away [to attend Harvard] and my mom was there alone. She wasn’t able to meet any neighbors and it was difficult for her to make friends and feel like she belonged. That was such a foreign experience for us coming from a small suburb.”
During Pleat’s sophomore summer at Harvard, he worked for WeWork at their headquarters in New York and was excited to see they were turning offices into communities.
While at WeWork he saw a way to bring a sense of community to his mother through a project called WeLive, which offers apartments in community-oriented buildings that have spaces for things like communal kitchens and lounge areas.
“I fell in love with the concept,” Pleat remembers. “I thought co-living was incredible. But I also knew I couldn’t put hundreds of thousands of dollars into renovating an apartment building to have communal space.”
So Pleat started looking into the problem of social isolation in cities, and he quickly learned that his family wasn’t alone. In fact, some studies indicate social isolation affects around 40 percent of the country, and Pleat notes that today people are increasingly living alone, working remotely and using apps to get things delivered to their doors. Those developments can have a particularly isolating effect on younger generations.
Meanwhile, more people live in urban areas now than ever before, and developers are always looking for ways to differentiate their apartment complexes as they compete to attract and retain tenants.
All of these trends helped Pleat come up with the idea for real estate tech startup Doorbell, and they also help explain the company’s early success.
Doorbell transforms the apartment living experience by using a combination of software and community events that aim to bring people together and make rented units feel like home.
“Our mission is to change the way people live in residential apartments by making them much more community focused,” Pleat says. “Our vision of apartment buildings are places where you truly belong and feel happy.”
The central feature of Doorbell’s solution is its mobile app, which residents can use to view and RSVP to upcoming events, explore nearby businesses and communicate with each other. Residents can use the app’s community feed feature to do things like ask to borrow a cup of sugar or get a recommendation for a nearby barber.
“Doorbell’s app allows residents to have the pulse of the community at their fingertips,” Pleat says. “The app allows us to create something that’s continuous rather than event to event.”
Doorbell’s community management team makes up the human side of the company. Community managers curate and host one or two events a week at each apartment building, organizing themes like ‘90s pop-up events or paint night and bringing residents together. Events can be held in apartment building common areas or at local restaurants and eateries.
“We’ve attracted an unbelievable team of community managers,” Pleat says. “They’re some of the most fun and outgoing people we meet. We have at least two managers at each event. They make introductions and make people feel like they belong in the building. They’re the glue, the central community builders.”
The Doorbell team has also partnered with local businesses to offer residents exclusive discounts called “Local Perks” at the stores and restaurants they walk by every day.
The company’s services aim to build apartment loyalty among tenants and thus increase apartment referrals and retention rates for landlords. The company’s current focus is on improving the tenant living experience, but Pleat sees Doorbell as much more than just an events company.
“We think of ourselves as a data player in the real estate space,” Pleat says. “So we’re always trying to understand what data points would point toward a renewal at the end of the season. We’re tracking things like community engagement, amenity space usage, tenant satisfaction with the building, willingness to recommend the building, etc.”
And by partnering with local businesses to offer discounts to residents, Doorbell is also forming what it calls a “building GDP” score that measures the economic impact of apartment buildings on nearby stores.
“We’re all urban research junkies, so we look at it from the academic side,” Pleat says. “This is important data to understand how to build apartment buildings. It could also be used to support building more housing to solve housing shortages in general.”
After starting out as an idea in the Harvard Innovation Lab two years ago, Doorbell has matured into a growing startup with an experimental mindset and a lot of energy. The company works with tenants in around 1,000 apartments units in Boston and downtown Worcester, and Pleat says his team plans to double that figure in the coming months as it seeks to expand around Boston and beyond (in related news, they’re hiring!).
Pleat credits the support the team has gotten from city officials and the i-lab for Doorbell’s early success.
“I would say Harvard is one of the leading institutions when it comes to housing and innovation, so it’s been great to build this company here,” Pleat says. “Also, as a community-building startup, actually being in a community at the i-lab has been absolutely essential to what we’re doing and our culture.”
Moving forward, Pleat sees Doorbell as a key cog in the smart city revolution, providing important data and insights on an underserved but rapidly growing portion of America’s population.
“We view ourselves as a nexus of smart cities and real estate technology,” Pleat says. “The bottom line is cities are great because they make people happy, so any technology aiming to improve a city should make people happier and healthier.”
Doorbell seems to be accomplishing those goals by transforming apartment complexes from places where people live in places where people belong.