How Doorstead doubled developer velocity with Retool

Retool Team
Retool Team
Remarkably fast

May 22, 2023

Real estate: it’s an industry that gets everyone talking, whether it’s booming or in a lull. Financially, it’s often touted as a desirable long-term investment, and many people seek to add commercial and rental properties to their portfolios. But the industry is about a lot more than the money—residential real estate is literally the roofs over people’s heads, and as such, high-quality property management is critical for both landlords and renters.

Enter Doorstead, a property-tech startup with a mission to level up property management by delivering high-quality housing to tenants while minimizing vacancies and guaranteed income for long-term rental property owners.

By providing guaranteed rent and full-service property management—the company has reimagined the incentive structure for property management and seen skyrocketing growth as a result. Rather than the traditional model which leaves homeowners with a potentially significant financial burden if the property manager doesn’t rent the unit in a timely fashion, Doorstead guarantees owners baseline rental income whether or not their units get leased by the expected occupancy date. The approach aligns Doorstead and the owners, with both committed to renting units as soon as possible.

The company’s mission resonated with Philip Lee, a real estate investor himself, who joined Doorstead in 2021 as CTO. Philip previously founded multiple companies of his own and worked at Microsoft, Amazon, and most recently Meta. When Philip joined Doorstead, the company was expanding fast and needed to scale operations to meet demand. They had to support their customers, contractors, and partners in six metropolitan areas—and their internal tools had to keep up.

Philip chose Retool out of several options for Doorstead’s internal tooling. He estimates that Doorstead has doubled or even tripled developer velocity because of their use of Retool. And in a business where efficiency is everything, Doorstead’s suite of tools has made it faster to put properties on the market, meaning it’s also faster to match people to homes.

A platform for building internal tools

Philip joined Doorstead when the company was at an inflection point—they were managing so many properties that their existing internal tooling was slowing them down. They needed new systems that could scale with them.

To effectively manage a large number of properties, Doorstead’s business depends on two main categories of internal tooling:

  • Pricing: Guaranteeing property owners rental income shifts financial risk onto Doorstead. The company needs to account for longer-than-expected vacancies and be strategic about the rates it offers property owners. This takes an understanding of several factors including what a property is worth, how much repair work is needed before it can be rented, and overall market conditions.
  • Operations: Operations are often the limiting factor preventing other property managers from expanding beyond 50 to 100 properties. Everything from collecting and triaging maintenance requests to getting quotes from vendors has traditionally been done manually. Doorstead invests in building tools that increase efficiency and reduce the volume of back-and-forth phone calls, emails, and other obstacles.

The company had used Airtable to address a lot of these internal tooling needs, but as it grew, Doorstead was pushing Airtable to its limits. While they’d found it a great tool for quickly prototyping new systems at a smaller scale, it was at times flexible to a fault: Doorstead encountered issues where somebody would accidentally delete a column or rename a field and bring entire company processes to a halt. Philip described Airtable as “a great way to spreadsheet stuff, track costs, and whatnot when you have a couple hundred properties. But when you get into the thousands—we literally ran into capacity issues.”

Doorstead needed something more robust and right-sized. Philip’s task was to decide on a new platform suited to the speed and scale of the company’s hypergrowth.

Initially, Doorstead considered building their own internal tooling from scratch. Coming from Meta, Philip was used to what he describes as “strong internal tooling”: “They had entire orgs that were building tools. There’s dashboarding teams, there’s data infrastructure teams, there’s an internal tooling team. Even their own recruiting software.” At Meta’s scale, that massive investment could make sense, as needs can be extremely bespoke and engineering resources may be more plentiful. Doorstead deemed it a higher return on investment to focus resources on building products for homeowners and tenants rather than to staff a full-fledged internal tooling team.

It wasn’t hard for Doorstead to buy tools addressing generic business needs like data management or recruiting. Domain-specific needs like pricing and operations, however, don’t always have third-party solutions. Doorstead solved this problem with an internal tool designed specifically for building custom tools—Retool.

After prototyping a project in Retool, and finding the experience “even better than Meta’s software” for building internal tools, Philip had an easy time choosing Retool for Doorstead:

“We basically got an internal tools org for the price of one or two engineers. Time in Retool is just so leveraged.”

From initial hesitation to widespread adoption

Ultimately, Doorstead decided to use Retool for all of their new tools, and Philip charted a plan to migrate existing processes from Airtable.

But at first, not everybody was fully bought in. Some software engineers would have preferred the fully in-house approach. They were hesitant to give up control—why introduce a third-party stack when somebody could build the same thing in React?

Once engineers got their hands on the product, however, their concerns were assuaged. Philip estimates that team members can build apps at least twice as fast as they could from scratch, and engineers haven’t had to sacrifice the quality of what they build. Plus, access to high-quality support gave Doorstead the confidence to use Retool for even the most bespoke applications. In Philip’s words, “We’ve built extremely complex things on Retool at this point. I really think there is nothing we can’t accomplish in Retool.”

And it’s not only Doorstead’s engineers who use Retool. For instance, the Product Ops team has shifted to building entire tools on their own, which in turn has reduced a workload that used to fall on engineering. Nowadays, 95% of Doorstead employees are monthly active users of Retool—whether building tools themselves or using tools built by others.

From intelligent pricing to tenant experiences: what Doorstead has built with Retool

The internal tools that Doorstead has built serve critical functions throughout the company. The examples range from pricing tools powered by machine learning to a series of applications for standard operating procedures. Doorstead has also integrated their Retool apps with other services such as Segment (the Twilio-owned customer data platform) and GoLinks (the popular URL shortener). The result is a unified ecosystem of internal tools at a fraction of the cost it would have taken to build from scratch.

Intelligent pricing

It’s a delicate balancing act to offer competitive rental guarantees to property owners without incurring too much financial risk on Doorstead’s end. To account for the many variables at play, Doorstead uses a host of machine learning models in addition to domain-specific business logic to generate prices. In order to compare results between these models and choose the best one to use in production, the team built a Retool app.

The tool sheds light on the factors considered and rules applied in generating a particular offer. For Doorstead’s sales team, this provides a critical resource that helps property owners understand why they may have been offered a certain amount.

The pricing team also relies on this tool and a related one to evaluate whether offers to property owners are reasonable. These dashboards make it convenient to check a property’s historical offers, price distributions, and real estate comps.

Going a step further, Doorstead built a Retool app that lets team members simulate the effects of modifying pricing rulesets. This way, if the pricing team identifies a market where Doorstead might have a low conversion rate, they can explore adjusting the offer rules in that area. This Retool app tests new rules on past offers to help Doorstead decide whether those rules are the right fit for a particular market.

Rent-ready process

One of Doorstead’s most sophisticated Retool applications powers what’s known as the rent-ready process. Making up the bulk of the property management pipeline, this process starts with the initial inspection of a property and continues all the way until a unit can be listed. There’s a lot of complexity to navigate: reviewing the inspection, defining what repairs are in order, gathering estimates, seeking owner approval, and managing repairs, among other challenges.

Doorstead replaced an arsenal of spreadsheets that used to organize this information with a single Retool application. By consolidating their process with Retool, the team saved time and reduced the toll of human errors—it’s much easier to shepherd a property toward rent readiness when there’s a central source of truth for the entire process.

The app also seamlessly links to Doorstead’s owner portal. After Doorstead inspects a property, the owner sees a report in their portal that comes from the data collected in the rent-ready backend. All this automation adds up and makes it substantially faster for Doorstead to get properties on the market.

With unified data, reports, and automation, this overall system increased operational productivity by over 50%. Not only that, but using Retool enabled Doorstead to make the relevant data much more structured than it used to be, which fundamentally changed how Doorstead could leverage that data. Analytics on structured data shed light on patterns in the rent-ready process, enabling Doorstead to optimize their business to an even greater degree.

Retool decision tree

Doorstead’s success with Retool for internal tools prompted them to embrace the platform for external use cases, too. Now, major parts of Doorstead’s tenant experience are also powered by Retool.

Property management often entails responding to tenant requests when something needs fixing—in Doorstead’s case this happens through Zendesk. Before integrating Retool into this flow, Doorstead had to engage in extended back-and-forths with tenants to get to the core issue. Tenants’ plain text tickets meant Doorstead would have to follow up with questions about everything from the tenant’s availability for repairs to photos of the problem, taking up unnecessary time for both parties.

In just one week, Doorstead created a Retool form that could generate more structured Zendesk tickets on behalf of tenants. The form operates like a decision tree, asking a series of questions to extract all the relevant details from the tenant.

The result is a streamlined process that reduces hassle for tenants, owners, and Doorstead. Philip estimates that this weeklong Retool project has reduced the time Doorstead’s tenant servicing team spends on turning around tenant tickets by 20–30%.

Why Doorstead sees long-term value in Retool

Philip gave a fitting summary for any company on the fence about whether and how to invest in internal tooling: “[Is] quickly building internal tooling and processes [important] to you? I think the answer is always ‘yes,’ especially for an operationally heavy company. Are you going to spin up an org to build internal tooling?” For Doorstead’s EPD (engineering, product, and design) org, the answer was no, and they haven’t looked back.

With successes on both the operational side of Doorstead’s business and in pricing intelligence, Doorstead’s decision to use Retool has substantially increased their efficiency. Team members across all functions are now able to quickly solve business problems, while creating long-lasting systems that work at scale.

Whereas most property management firms cap on the order of hundreds of units, Doorstead is continuing to grow with the support of its highly optimized tooling. Between guaranteed rental rates and more properties utilized for housing, it’s a win for landlords and renters alike.

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Retool Team
Retool Team
Remarkably fast
May 22, 2023