Robert Cooper is a serial entrepreneur whose first startup, a spinout from Cornell University, was acquired for 24X. Let’s just say, he was hooked, and he’s been building companies ever since.
His latest venture, Embue, is a member of Shadow’s CRE Lab and blends Cooper’s passion for sustainability and the built environment with a newfound interest in the multifamily industry.
With a Ph.D. in computer science from Cambridge and a master’s in sustainability from Harvard, Robert said, “Embue combines two things I am passionate about: making buildings more comfortable and efficient and delivering products that customers can depend on.”
We caught up with Robert to discuss hard-won lessons and his vision for the future of multifamily.
You’ve been launching and building companies since the early nineties. As a career entrepreneur, what advice do you have for your fellow founders?
In 2010, I was part of a company at Greentown Labs, where I saw a book on a colleague’s desk: Risk Only Money. Now I never actually opened that book, but it was good enough to read the cover. “Risk only money, and don’t risk all of your money,” is pretty much what it comes down to. Your family, your relationships — you’ve got to make sure you don’t screw that up while you’re singularly focused on your startup. I think very young entrepreneurs, pre-family, can ignore that and get away with it. But once you start wanting kids, you’ve got to really think about how that’s going to work. One of the things I like about KP is in his blog posts, he opens up about this kind of stuff. It’s very important to be self-aware of what the risk is.
How have you grown as an entrepreneur over the past few decades?
There’s one thing I don’t do a particularly good job at, and I don’t think a lot of other people do, either. When you’re building a company, there’s a lot of momentum in the direction you’re going in. So it’s important to step back and figure out whether you’re still going in the right direction. Stepping back and seeing, is this the right thing? Should I pivot, in terms of the business strategy, or the engineering implementation or the architecture? There’s a bias against doing that, but you can get into the track of keeping on just because you’ve been working on it so long. But opportunity cost is really, really expensive. It’s expensive for big companies. It’s expensive for small.
How did you get started with Embue?
I was a co-founder at a company focused on energy management for the single-family residential consumer market. We were a bit ahead of our time, but through that, I recognized the multifamily market was ripe for the same type of technology. We started with voice of the customer visits, explaining to people that we were going to put smart thermostats and other sensors and controllers into their building to make the entire building intelligent — not just what was going on with the central equipment or reading the utility meter, which was state of the art at that point. But really giving visibility and control down to every space in their buildings. We got a high percentage of callbacks and if we had a product then, I think we would have sold it right on the spot.
You’re taking on a new industry with Embue: multifamily real estate. What have you learned so far?
People refer to multifamily as a market segment, but it’s a whole market unto itself. If you just restrict yourself to large multifamily properties, 100+ units, there are nine million of those, so you’re talking 20-30 million people living in those. It’s got a decent amount of concentration, which people get wrong about multifamily, they think it’s fragmented. But 50% of those large complexes are owned by the largest 50 owners and managers in the country.
In conversation with some leading direct-to-consumer smart home players, we discovered it’s been difficult for them to sell to multifamily because they’re selling it to the resident, but the thermostat actually belongs to the landlord. Because of that dynamic, multifamily has been seen as a laggard, but if you do it right it can be an area of high growth and fast adoption because of the economies of scale.
How do you see Embue impacting multifamily?
The model is pretty straightforward. We put IOTs into the building and connect them to automation and analytics in the cloud. We’re saving energy; we’re preserving the building fabric from water leaks, mold, and frozen pipes; and most importantly, we’re improving the operational efficiency of the staff inside the building.
Operating a multifamily building today is extremely manual. “Walking the property” to look for problems is actually in the job description. So we see a visceral reaction with the customers; we see them relax and get excited when they see our dashboard because they know they can handle issues remotely instead of visiting that apartment for the second time or third time in a day.