Product Leader Spotlight: Erin Chan, Chief Product Officer at Rhenti
Erin Chan is the co-founder and chief product officer at Rhenti, a Toronto-based rental real estate start-up that makes the rental leasing process fast, easy, and transparent. Prior to Rhenti, Erin worked in product management at Shopify.
Erin founded Rhenti with her husband Tomas, who brings experience in engineering, finance, machine learning, and operations. Together they started Rhenti in 2016, and secured seed funding in March 2020.
This is Erin’s startup story.
Ellie: Did you always know that you wanted to be a founder?
Erin: Yes and no. I always knew that living my best life would involve working for myself. That said, ‘Founder’ is such a loaded term because it can be much more complex than simply working for yourself. Being a Founder of a start-up means leading people and figuring out how to grow a company. Those aspects of entrepreneurship were not a part of my life aspirations, but I’m excited and here for it.
Ellie: How did the idea for Rhenti arise? Where did you recognize that problem?
Erin: My husband Tomas and I have been renters for a long time. I’ve lived in 11 different rentals; Tomas has been a renter for at least 10 years. With a deep knowledge of so-called ‘renter life,’ we recognized that the rental process is quite antiquated and doesn’t serve both renters and property owners well. We saw a very clear opportunity to improve the rental experience from numerous angles and pain points.
With that, we explored the problems that are inherent to the rental real estate industry and began hashing out what the best experience might look and feel like. And that was the seed of Rhenti.
Ellie: How did you first visualize the solution? Has that vision changed over time?
Erin: That’s a great question, and to be totally honest, I can’t even remember how we began mapping out a solution. To start, though, there were a few key problems that we knew we wanted to address:
- How can we surface the good renters in the market?
- How can we reduce the time to lease?
- How can we make the rental leasing process transparent for both renters and property owners?
There were good UX elements that already existed in the market, so we didn’t want to totally reinvent the wheel for those features and products. But we wanted to elevate the aspects of the experience that worked and reimagine the broken ones.
Ultimately, our goal is to change the behaviors and attitudes towards renting. We feel even more passionate about that vision today than the day we started, and that vision has never changed. However, we’re constantly making pivots to our business – some small, some big. We’re always inching our way closer and closer to building a rental experience that changes the industry. And we’re always fine-tuning the business model so that one day, we can bring this experience to as many renters and property owners as possible.
Our goal is to change the behaviors and attitudes towards renting. We feel even more passionate about that vision today than the day we started, and that vision has never changed.
Ellie: You had been working on Rhenti on the side for quite some time. What pushed you to take the plunge and make Rhenti your day job?
Erin: Rhenti has been my side hustle since 2016. Tomas left his job at Rubikloud (a Toronto-based machine learning company) soon after we began gaining traction at the end of 2018. In my mind, that’s when we became a real business. After a year of growing, we landed a lead investor for our seed round in March 2020. With that deal, I left my job at Shopify and also joined Rhenti full-time in April 2020.
Contractual agreements aside, I felt as though I had accumulated enough experience and skill to take a giant leap in my professional life. I’m very uncomfortable with being comfortable in my professional career, so joining the startup that I co-founded was the logical next move.
Ellie: What were your first priorities when you set out to build Rhenti? How did you decide on those priorities?
Erin: When I joined full-time, my first priority was to sharpen our target market, which would help us determine how to build the product. Then I focused on building the roadmap for the rest of 2020 to ensure we were clear on what problems we need to solve and in what order. My third priority was to figure out ways to help the team focus and ship faster.
As a product person, when I have to prioritize I always ask myself two questions: “What are the most important things that I could be focusing on right now to help the team move forward?” And, “What problem are we trying to solve right now?” As soon as I joined full-time, I asked myself those two questions, and that helped me kickstart the things I needed to do for the team.
When I have to prioritize I always ask myself two questions: “What are the most important things that I could be focusing on right now to help the team move forward?” And, “What problem are we trying to solve right now?”
Ellie: How has your product management experience helped you as a founder?
Erin: There are so many great skills that transfer from product management to the role of a founder. Extreme prioritization and being comfortable with saying “no” or “not right now” is extremely important. There are so many things that the team could be doing to build the product and the business, but with limited people/time/money, trying to do everything will result in confusion, poor quality, and an unmotivated team.
Product management is probably one of the best disciplines to bridge over to the role of a founder, in my opinion. Getting the product right is the core activity to any company and the PM naturally has a hand in many areas of the business, so it prepared me well.
Ellie: What has been the most valuable thing you’ve learned or piece of advice you’ve gotten along your entrepreneurial journey?
Erin: The entrepreneurial journey is filled with hard times, but sometimes there will be a day (or a week) where things ‘magically’ move forward – and that is a great feeling. Resilience and learning how to turn disappointments into something of value is one of the most important skills a founder can develop. It could be the difference between a company that folds and one that grows. There will be tough times, and founders need to be the experts on how to overcome them.