Site made to simplify managing properties

When Todd Collins bought his first investment properties, he was surprised to find there wasn't a way to manage them without expensive software or dated tools.

“It's amazing, but there are a lot of people who run properties using a pen, paper, Excel and Word,” the former technology management consultant said.

So Collins created, where property managers can run background checks, collect rent, track maintenance requests and more.

The site launched three years ago in Washington and is now based in an office at Woodfield Gardens apartments in east Charlotte, one of the properties Collins owns.

The company has five employees and thousands of clients in the U.S., South America, Europe and the Caribbean.

iRealtyManager has seen dramatic growth – its customer base surged 230 percent from March 2007 to March 2008 – as the economy has pushed more people toward the rental market.

Collins, 35, spoke with the Observer recently about winning over customers and planning for the future. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. How has the economy affected your business?

We've seen a lot more Realtors calling, guys who were selling houses and are now migrating into managing them. We're also seeing a lot of owners taking a more hands-on approach to managing, because their managing company was not doing the things they needed to do, or they're stuck with an asset they were going to sell.

Q. You own about 500 residential units, plus 55,000 square feet of commercial space. How has that helped

Those properties use iRealtyManager every day, so we get our customers calling us with suggestions on how to improve, and then also our actual employees call us and say, “Hey, this is a report that I think would make our life easier.”

One issue with a lot of real estate technology that's available is that it was built by a literal technology company, so they make it such that a person working in an office has no idea how to use it. They build it from a technology perspective, as opposed to a real estate perspective, whereas we did the opposite.

We have training, but our users don't need it, because it's so easy to use. For example, maintenance technicians – most people think they would never want to touch a computer – can log on, look at their maintenance issues, work on them and close them, so it takes the burden off the manager.

Q. Where did the idea come from?

I used to work with Accenture, a technology consulting firm, and I always had an interest in real estate, so I started investing in multifamily properties and found that there was no technology for me to use as a small to mid-size investor to actually manage the property. Either it was an Excel spreadsheet that was way too simple, or it was way too complicated. So I set out to design a software to meet the needs of a small to mid-size investor, and fortunately, at the time, there really were no other options.

Q. Do you have competitors now? Is there still a need for this product?

There's a huge, huge need, because we specialize in small to mid-size investors. We're not targeting multinational or institutional firms. We're targeting guys who live in Charlotte and operate a business in Charlotte or Gastonia or wherever. Our target customer base is using nothing, so they have a notebook with all their tenant names in it and whether they paid rent for the month, or just a spreadsheet. We haven't begun to tap into the potential market. Quicken has a product that competes with us. There are few others, but this industry is evolving, so competitors will be coming along.

Q. Your site allows property managers to log on anywhere with an Internet connection. Does that raise security questions?

We get that question, and then we get the question of, “How do I know you're not going to lose my data?” The first security question, the site is SSL protected, which is the same thing that Amazon has, eBay has. It's the standard protocol for Web safety. And then you have a user name and password you can change at anytime, if you like.

And then related to, “How do I know you're not going to lose my data?” we have one set of servers in California, and if something were to happen to Los Angeles, we'd move over to the overseas server. So your data is always backed up.

Q. What's the most important business lesson you've learned?

For me it's, ultimately you grow by pleasing one customer at a time. We touch base with every single new customer, even if we weren't involved with their registration, we give them a call and say, “Do you need any assistance setting up?”

Q. What are your goals for the future?

We hope to continue on our growth trajectory. It would be nice to grow by 300 percent this year, and we think ultimately, we'll probably wind up working with a larger firm. The software as a service industry is fragmented in nature, but it's starting to evolve into a situation where there are larger portfolio companies that own likeminded businesses. Ultimately, we would like to wind up becoming one or being part of one of those groups.