The real estate industry isn’t exactly known for finding dynamic solutions to common problems. Yet, that is how Tripalink, which is a real estate brand that develops and manages co-living and standard apartments came to be. When Founder and CEO, Donghao Li had a challenging experience renting an apartment as an international graduate student at USC, he stumbled upon a situation that would end up becoming a phenomenal career for him.
Today, Tripalink boasts more than $50 million in venture capital funding, and has co-living and standard properties in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Philadelphia, Irvine, and Tucson with more cities planned soon. Tripalink is one of the few real estate brands that strive to solve their tenant’s pain points, as well as create true communities by offering desirable amenities along with community events.
Tripalink’s co-living apartments look and feel more like chic Airbnbs than a typical crash pad. Outfitted with high-end finishes like quartz countertops and stainless steel appliances, there’s even a weekly cleaning service included with rent. Some of the buildings even have swimming pools, co-working spaces, and gyms.
I recently spoke with Li about the benefits of co-living, how they retain tenants for the long term, what makes his brand different and so much more.
Amanda Lauren: You came up with the idea for Tripalink when you experienced the stress of trying to rent an apartment as an international student. What was that moment like for you? Were you planning for a career in the real estate industry at that time?
MORE FOR YOU
Donghao Li: Like most international students, I started looking for housing remotely in China, and the communication with landlords and apartment management was tough with a 12 hours time difference— completely upside down. The room I rented in a seven-bedroom, two-bathroom single-family home ended up costing $750 a month with nothing included and no furniture. I had no credit history or social security number, so I had to find a friend to co-sign my lease and pay the security deposit as well as the first month’s rent via international transfer.
I was shocked when I saw my home in person after I landed. It was much older and smaller than it was in the pictures. I slept on the floor for a couple of days since there was no furniture.
I found a classmate who had a U.S. driver’s license and we rented a U-haul, went to Ikea, and bought some furniture.
Utilities were not open yet so we installed the bed using a cell phone flashlight that evening.
It also wasn’t easy to find a community, having just moved to a new country. I couldn’t imagine how I could get through it by myself with so many unexpected things.
The tedious process of signing a lease, and the frustration when first seeing the room cost me $750 a month got me thinking about why it has to be so difficult for international students. I later learned from my domestic classmates and American friends that moving was not an easy process for them either.
So, I set off to find solutions for student renters and later expand it to working professionals. I was not planning on going into real estate but sincerely wanted to solve the pain points that most renters have.
Lauren: The majority of co-living properties aren’t luxurious or upscale, but Tripalink prides itself on this. Do you think this attracts people to co-living who might not otherwise be interested?
Li: We didn’t plan to market co-living properties as luxurious options but believe that co-living can also provide a high quality of life. So we focused on designing co-living spaces that balance privacy and interactions with enhanced functionality and attentive services.
This does help alleviate people’s concerns about the potential headaches in a co-living space and attract more people to try it out
Lauren: What are some of Tripalink’s most luxurious co-living properties and where are they located?
Li: Tripalink’s co-living properties are mainly located near universities and downtown areas. It’s difficult to pick out the most luxurious one since some have the greatest locations but not that many amenities and some have better amenities but not necessarily in the best location. It really depends on renters’ preference and we hope to help them find the best suitable home for them.
Lauren: Are co-living apartments different from standard apartments?
Li: At Tripalink, we define co-living as people living together under one roof, sharing spacious common spaces yet enjoying the individual private bedroom/ bathroom suites.
This new way of co-living is different from a standard apartment in the sense that it allows for sharing of spaces among strangers who will eventually become friends. Continuously learning from our current and past tenants, we extracted attractive elements from traditional homes, apartments, and group housing and incorporated those into our designs. With affordability in mind, we make sure every square foot is utilized and minimize waste space seen in common apartments.
Our design goal is to provide all the functions available from a traditional apartment while taking into account the additional storage space needs, common space needs, and most importantly privacy needs for our larger groups. With fully furnished units, individual suites, and plenty of common space to share while cleaned weekly, we see our co-living as the new way for Gen-Z and millennials to live, work and thrive.
Lauren: Do many people who start in your co-living properties move on to stay as tenants in standard apartments?
Li: Yes, and that’s why we want to have a portfolio with different types of properties. As students graduate, become financially independent, and have a higher budget, they move from co-living properties to our standard apartments. It also happens when a tenant gets into a romantic relationship, some via Tripalink’s events or community, they also tend to move from co-living properties to standard apartments.
Lauren: From an investment standpoint, how does offering a mix of housing types benefit Tripalink?
Li: At Tripalink, we want to build a residential brand that can provide a mix of housing options to different demographics and at their different stages of life. We found our potential to create brand stickiness when many tenants inquired about properties in a different city/area or another type of property. If tenants are happy living with Tripalink while in college, and we have co-living and standard apartments options for them after graduation, they can still choose us.
Lauren: Why is community so important to both Tripalink and its tenants, especially as we head towards the end of the pandemic?
Li: The core of creating a community is to get residents connected through Tripalink and provide more than just a physical living space with basic services. The current housing options can’t keep up with the ever-evolving needs of the latest generations. A simple place to sleep is not all they want.
Instead, they are looking for a community experience that is convenient, relatable, trustworthy, and brings a sense of belonging. We’ve heard many stories about our tenants finding their romantic relationships, landing a dream job offer, or just simply expanding their social network within the Tripalink community.
For Tripalink, building a community is a great way to expand brand awareness and develop brand loyalty. In addition to community events and exclusive perks, we also launched many small projects that enhance a sense of community and will make the community experience more digital through our app.
Lauren: Lots of buildings have tenant apps, what makes Tripalink’s superior?
Li: We want to build a truly all-in-one app in-house and give our tenants a best-in-class digital living experience. It not only allows tenants to pay monthly rent as well as submit and track maintenance requests, but also enhances the community vibe as tenants can connect with other members, share their lives in the community, and sign up for community events.
Lauren: You’ve received $50 million in venture capital funding. Why are investors so attracted to your company?
Li: Investors are attracted for mainly three reasons. One, Tripalink has a higher capital efficiency, which means we can grow in a cost-effective way. Secondly, we have built a scalable business model with strong unit economics. Tripalink’s business has been profitable since it was founded and the business can scale with capital support. Thirdly, Tripalink is leveraging technologies and data analysis to improve the renter’s leasing and living experience.
Lauren: Tripalink was recently named one of the best startups to work for. What makes Tripalink a great place to work?
Li: At Tripalink, we constantly strive to create a sense of community and belonging for all tenants, and to our employees. We give our team members the freedom to chart their career paths. We let their passions breed way to innovation within our organization.
We establish a unified company culture that is driven by a clear understanding of what motivates our employees. Our unique mission and vision are the added values that drive our employee experiences. Our Tripalink community members are well taken care of at all times, as are our employees.
Tripalink creates a shared experience that our employees and our customers are proud to champion. Because we strongly believe our unique business model can spark the change we wish to see in the real estate industry.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.